Remarks of Ambassador Godec – World Press Freedom Day Reception

Hamjambo mabibi na mabwana.  Good evening, and welcome.  Thank you all for coming this evening to commemorate – a few days late – World Press Freedom Day.

Twenty years ago, almost to the day, Nelson Mandela said this about the media:  “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference.  It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials.  It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor.  It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

As usual, Nelson Mandela got it exactly right.  A free media is the lifeblood of democracy.  In fact, Madiba’s statement is so clear and true that it is tempting to end my comments right here and let you all continue with socializing.  But I have a few more thoughts to offer…on the importance of freedom of expression, freedom of the media and the obligation of accuracy.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental freedom.  It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It is the cornerstone of American democracy and other democracies around the world.  It is impossible to imagine the United States without our constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and association – the essential companions to freedom of the media.  Freedom of expression, in all its forms, is at the very heart of our national compact and values.  It is at the core of our understanding of ourselves as a people.  It is central to every part of American life.

Politically, freedom of expression has enabled Americans to hold our government accountable.  It allowed our media to uncover scandals such as Watergate and Teapot Dome.  It empowered Americans to speak up and right wrongs.  It enabled the American civil rights movement to flourish and succeed.  It was integral to women winning the right to vote.  Without freedom of expression, we would not have Hollywood or hip hop music or a vibrant kaleidoscope of culture.  It is safe to say that without freedom of expression our history would be very different.  As Americans, we respect – even revere – the right of freedom of expression.  We do all we can to protect it.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the media are enshrined in Kenya’s constitution, just as they are in ours.  Having served in Kenya in the 1990s, the vibrant Kenyan media is one of the first things that struck me when I returned.  Today, Kenyans are free to say what they want without fear of arrest.  Kenya’s media has blossomed and diversified at incredible speed.  It would be hard, I think, to find a more dynamic media on the continent.  We all enjoy and rely upon the many Kenyan daily newspapers, television stations, and the bewildering number of radio stations for our daily information.  The expansion of social media in Kenya is another great success.  The Twitterati are everywhere, and the media landscape is shifting rapidly toward more decentralized reporting.  These developments are exciting and important.  They reflect the deep desire that we all have to express ourselves freely, to contribute to the national debate, to be part of building a better world.

Journalists and other members of the media, including editors and publishers and social media professionals must be free to investigate, research, write and publish.  They must have unfettered liberty to disseminate the news and opinions.  They must have the freedom to go about their business, and their business is to report honestly, whether or not their reports make the government or anyone else uncomfortable.  The media have an obligation to hold us all accountable.

I mentioned Teapot Dome a moment ago.  In the 1920s, Teapot Dome was the largest corruption case ever reported by the American media.  It involved government giving oil leases to companies without competitive bidding.  The media played a vital role bringing this ugly case to light…and the United States has been a stronger country since.

As an essential right in the constitution, it is the responsibility of government to safeguard freedom of expression and the media.  But, by the same token, the media, and indeed everyone who speaks publicly, have an obligation to the truth.  The media must seek to be accurate in the reporting of events.  They must work tirelessly to ensure they have the facts and present them fairly and with balance.  They must be ever vigilant in the effort to get reporting right.  A hero of the U.S. media, Edward R. Murrow, once said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”  The truth matters, now more than ever.

Of course, when the media makes a factual mistake it is also important that citizens have recourse.  Note that I use the word factual – because causing offense or discomfort are not, in themselves, mistakes.  It is best when the media itself publicly acknowledges and corrects factual errors.  Just last year, Lara Logan, a famous investigative journalist working on one of America’s most respected news programs, 60 Minutes, publicly apologized for getting the facts wrong in a major report on Benghazi.  It was a good example of how the media can hold itself accountable when it makes a mistake.

When the media does not correct errors, citizens should have recourse to the courts to present their concerns and complaints.  It is up to each country to agree on a process of accountability, but whatever process is adopted, the important thing is that the fundamental freedoms of expression and the media are protected and preserved.  Without them, democracy itself is at peril.

The United States has been a friend and partner of Kenya for the past 50 years.  We share much, including a free media and a commitment to freedom of expression.  Our common commitment to our shared values binds us together and strengthens both our countries.  Building on these values, we can forge a better future for both Kenyans and Americans.

I would like to thank everyone for coming tonight to commemorate World Press Freedom Day.   Asanteni sana.