World Press Freedom Debates 2015

As Prepared For Delivery | June 11, 2015 | Gaborone

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press

I am happy to be with you tonight at the University of Botswana to underscore the importance of press freedom and the key role journalists play in a democracy. As President Obama said on May 1st at the White House, each journalist “gives voice to the voiceless, exposes injustice, and holds leaders like me accountable.”

Today, we celebrate the role of journalists, particularly those that risk their lives in order to publish a story. Now is the time to honor the journalists who face harassment, dangerous working conditions, and jail sentences as well as those have lost their lives in their quest to publish stories.

It is also the time to reevaluate levels of press freedom around the world and to defend the media from attacks on their independence.

The theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day Commemoration is Let Journalism Thrive! Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality, & Media Safety in the Digital Age. This theme aptly addresses the current environment in which the media operates. Now, ordinary people can use the internet to disseminate news stories. However, postings by ordinary people about events they witness on social media platforms cannot always be taken at face value. Such postings may help provide journalists with news tips, but it remains essential that journalists confirm the facts about the events in order to write a truly well-informed story. Journalists must verify the facts of the story in order to avoid losing credibility.

As the eyes and ears of a society, journalists also must be accurate, objective, and comprehensive. Personal and political views must not shade a journalist’s reporting of the facts. Stories should be objective. Most importantly, journalists must check the facts before a story is published. Without these practices, sensationalism will result.

And you media colleagues, as the eyes and ears of Botswana, must ensure that your readers are armed with the information they need to effect change, to make decisions about whom to vote for, and ultimately, to hold the parties and the people who voters put in positions of power accountable. Both political and community leaders must respect the public’s right to know and must use openness and transparency when engaging in public affairs. Furthermore, these leaders must sustain a legal and political climate that nurtures and protects media freedom – even when the media throws unfair and inaccurate slings and arrows at them.

Media freedom keeps societies and economies vibrant, energetic, and strong. It provides the transparency and accountability needed to ensure the success of democracy and the continuation of good governance. Without adequate access to independent information, citizens in a democracy cannot understand or assess the decisions made on their behalf by their elected representatives and by others in positions of power.

Journalism is an important calling, but it is not an easy line of work. And it’s becoming increasingly more dangerous. According to Reporters without Borders, in 2014 an estimated 66 journalists were killed worldwide. While journalists in Botswana do not confront the challenges or face the threats that cost these 66 journalists their lives, we know that media outlets and journalists here do face real difficulties.  Botswana was ranked “free” by Freedom House in its 2014 report, “Freedom in the World,” just one of seven African countries to receive that honor. But that’s not the whole story, as last September’s arrest of The Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone, underscored.

In 2015, Freedom House rated Botswana only “partly free” when it assessed freedom of the press. With that in mind, my government will continue to raise the issue of a Freedom of Information Act with our counterparts in the Government of Botswana. It remains my government’s hope that Botswana will soon adopt a freedom of information bill that ensures greater openness, transparency and access to information for the people of this wonderful country.

We have also sponsored journalist training in order to improve the media climate in Botswana by providing journalists with tools and tips that allow them to improve their media outlet’s coverage of local, national, regional, and international news. This will improve the tone and tenure of public debate and will enhance transparency and accountability.

My embassy’s support for the media encompasses a spectrum of programming and outreach, including professional development training, journalist exchanges, visiting speakers, advocacy for access to information, and monitoring of press freedoms in the annual congressionally mandated Human Rights Report. Ellen Hume, research director at the Center for Future Civic Media and a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal says you cannot have a democratic political culture without open media and open access to information. I couldn’t agree more.

Thank you, and I look forward to this evening’s debates.