Barack Obama first addressed press freedom as a global issue back when he was visiting his father’s native Kenya as a senator in 2006. “Press freedom is like tending a garden, it’s never done,” Obama told reporters in Nairobi after a recent Kenyan government crackdown on the press. “It continually has to be nurtured and cultivated and the citizenry has to value it. It’s one of those things that can slip away if we don’t tend to it.”
Today, the White House watered the garden with a statement for World Press Freedom Day on Sunday. “It is a day in which we celebrate the indispensable role played by journalists in exposing abuses of power, while we sound the alarm about the growing number of journalists silenced by death or jail as they attempt to bring daily news,” reads the statement by President Obama. Citing CPJ statistics from our CPJ’s journalist killed database, the statement goes on: “Since this day was first celebrated some sixteen years ago, 692 journalists have been killed. Only a third of those deaths were linked to the dangers of covering war; the majority of victims were local reporters covering topics such as crime, corruption, and national security in their home countries.”
The president’s statement goes on to address the “hundreds more” journalists “who face intimidation, censorship, and arbitrary arrest,” noting that “there are journalists in jail or being actively harassed” in places like Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, Burma, Uzbekistan, Cuba, and Eritrea. The White House press release goes on to note “the distressing reality” of journalists like J.S. Tissainayagam, the Sri Lankan journalist currently being tried on trumped-up charges of allegedly inciting communal disharmony, Shi Tao, the Chinese journalist imprisoned for allegedly “leaking state secrets” for having published guidelines from China’s Propaganda Department instructing the media how to cover the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and Hu Jia, another Chinese journalist behind bars for alleged “incitement to subvert state power” for his online commentaries and interviews with foreign media criticizing the ruling Communist Party.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks, recorded on videotape, are about the role of a free press to “expose abuses of power, fight corruption, challenge assumptions, and provide constructive outlets for new ideas and dissent.” Clinton added: “Those who seek to abuse power and spread corruption view media freedom as a threat. Instead of supporting an open press, they attempt to control or silence independent voices.”
In January 2009, CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger wrote to President-elect Obama asking him to reaffirm America’s role as a staunch defender of press freedom throughout the world. CPJ urged the administration to end the U.S. military’s practice of open-ended detention of journalists and media-support workers. No fewer than 14 journalists have been detained for weeks, months, or years, in each case without ever being charged, by U.S. forces in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, or Afghanistan. CPJ further urged the administration to investigate fully the deaths of journalists from U.S. forces’ fire. At least 16 journalists have been killed, and even more wounded, in incidents involving fire from U.S. forces.