Remarks by Carl Gershman at the World Press Freedom Day 2011 Symposium


Washington, D.C.

Good evening, and a special welcome to Washington to those who are visiting from far away.  A special welcome, too, to UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova and to Under Secretary of State Judith McHale.

This is the first time that the UNESCO observance of World Press Freedom Day has taken place in the United States, and there are many institutions and individuals whose work and devotion to the principle of press freedom have made possible this important occasion.   First I want to thank the three non-governmental organizations that worked with the State Department in organizing this landmark event – the United Nations Foundation, the International Research and Exchanges Board, and the National Endowment for Democracy’s own Center for International Media Assistance, which has excelled under the leadership of Marguerite Sullivan.

It’s the conventional wisdom in Washington that you can’t organize any kind of an event on a Sunday evening.  But I think the full house that is gathered here this evening demonstrates what an impressive job the groups organizing this meeting have done.

I also want to thank our donors, who are listed up here at the front, for their very generous support.  I especially want to thank our first donor, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, for its matching grant, and also the Omidyar Network, the Open Society Foundations, the Washington Post Company, Yahoo, Google, Mashable, and Pia-Maria and Stephen Norris among many others.

Not least, of course, I want to give special thanks to our host, the Newseum, for providing such a splendid and fitting venue for this important event.  I hope our guests will take the time to really see this remarkable museum that chronicles the history of the media and is such an impressive monument to Thomas Jefferson’s faith in free media as the foundation of democracy.

It was a little more than seven years ago that Senator Richard Lugar, a former NED Board Member, urged us to create CIMA for the purpose of strengthening support to free media as a central component of the U. S. effort to aid democracy in the world.  We readily agreed to do this because support for independent media had been a NED priority from the very moment we began operating in the 1980s.  Some of our earliest grants went to dissident publications in Central Europe such as Lidovy Noviny in Czechoslovakia, Bezselo in Hungary, and Tygodnik Mazowsze, which was Poland’s leading underground newspaper.  Other grants supported La Prensa in Nicaragua, The Starbroek News in Guyana, and The Sowetan in South Africa.

Over the years we’ve supported an immense variety of media projects, from groups like the Press Union of Liberia and the Pakistan Press Foundation that train and support journalists, to groups that monitor press freedom and fight violence against journalists, like the National Union of Somali Journalists, IPYS-Venezuela, Journaliste en Danger in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the aptly named Russian group, the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.  Some groups broadcast from exile, like the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Voice of Tibet, and four short-wave radios broadcasting into North Korea, while others operate in such dangerous places as the tribal areas of Pakistan and Russia’s North Caucasus.    And some focus on empowering women journalists, among them the Women’s Media Watch Azerbaijan and the remarkable Tawakkol Karman’s Women Journalists Without Chains in Yemen.

More recently, of course, we’ve increasingly supported innovative online initiatives like Xiao Qiang’s China Digital Times and Daoud Kuttab’s Ammannet; cutting edge digital publications like Ukrains’ka Pravda, Malaysiakini, Prachatai in Thailand, CubaNet and the Korean Daily NK; dissident bloggers like Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada in Azerbaijan; and organizations like the Andalus Institute in Egypt that are taking powerful advantage of the new communications technologies to build new social movements.

This conference will focus heavily on the new media and the way the Internet has become a new arena of conflict between social movements fighting to expand rights and free access to information, and authoritarian governments that are devoting enormous resources to controlling this new space.  We’ve seen from events in Tunisia and Egypt how powerful these tools can be at informing and mobilizing citizen activists and, in Iran and China, what governments will do to prevent the use of the Internet by political opponents, even to the extent of shutting down the Internet entirely, as the Burmese and Egyptian governments did during their respective uprisings.  Nonetheless, there is an underlying reality in our new world that will not change, which is that there exists today a sharpening contradiction between closed and repressive states and increasingly networked, informed and awakened populations, creating a revolutionary crisis of the political order.

Because of this crisis, we can expect inherently vulnerable and therefore insecure autocracies to tighten their controls, meaning that journalists will face even greater dangers in the period ahead.  Such dangers are, of course, not new.  In recent years we have mourned the murder of many brave journalists whom we have worked with and supported – people like Ali Iman Sharmarke of HornAfrik Radio, Gyorgy Gongadze of Ukrains’ka Pravada, the Uzbek journalist Alisher Saipov, and the fearless Anna Politkovskaya, whom we honored posthumously with our Democracy Award in 2007 which was received by her colleague, Elena Milashina, who is with us this evening.

Anna Politkovskaya also received posthumously UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, as did Lasantha Wickrematunge, whose widow Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge is here with us this evening.  I want to recognize her and especially also Ana Maria Busquets de Cano, Guillermo Cano’s widow.  Not only do they honor us with their presence, but they remind us how important it is that we never forget those who gave their lives for freedom, and always stand in solidarity with those who face danger because of their devotion to press freedom and human dignity.  I want to also note the presence with us this evening of Miroslava Gongadze, the widow of Gyorgy Gongadze, and Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl.  Tuesday will mark the first anniversary of the Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Act which calls for a focus on press freedom issues in the State Department’s annual human rights report.  May I ask these four brave women to stand, and that we recognize with our applause the values their husbands died for and that we have come together to defend.

Our conference will end on Tuesday with the presentation of the Cano Prize to the imprisoned Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi.  Much more will be said about him at that ceremony, but for now let me just say that in honoring him we are sending a powerful message of solidarity and hope to the people of Iran, who are suffering greatly.  That by itself justifies all the effort that has been made to prepare this event and to gather all of us together.  May our gathering and the exchanges that will take place strengthen us for the struggles that lie ahead.