Conference of Electronic Communications Operators
May 22, 2023
Ladies and Gentlemen, participants of the Conference of Electronic Communications Operators,
I regret that I could not be there in person, but thanks to technology, I still have the honor to speak to you today about something that is very important to me, as it is to all of the U.S. government, and that is the freedom of the press.
Media freedom is an essential pillar of democracies around the world. It is great to know that this excellent group champions this cause every single day. I would like to thank you for what you do to stand up and speak out in support of press freedom; your work is critical to building a better society.
We know what the alternative looks like. Poland lived through decades of this harsh reality under Soviet-imposed communist rule, and I know Poles have no desire to return to a time when autocrats and their enablers used repression to silence free and independent media.
It is a reality currently on display in Russia and Belarus. Courageous journalists are often faced with censorship, retribution, threats, lawsuits, harassment, physical attacks, detention, lengthy prison sentences, or – even worse, death – just for telling the truth. This is the price media members and their families are paying to tell us the story of Putin’s unjust and brutal war in Ukraine.
Evan Gershkovich is especially on my mind today. The American journalist was on assignment for the Wall Street Journal in Russia. Since March he has been wrongly detained on espionage charges. He was simply there doing his job. He was sharing information so the world could better understand what was happening in that country. His last story, published just a day before his detention, talked about how the war in Ukraine was damaging the Russian economy.
And Evan is not the only one. According to Reporters without Borders, there are over 550 journalists detained around the world.
As President Biden has said: “Journalism is not a crime.”
The media must be guaranteed the freedom to acquire facts and information. They must be able to communicate this to the public. It allows people to make informed decisions. It allows the world to see and understand what is happening on the frontlines in Ukraine.
Independent media remains a crucial piece in Ukraine’s fight for freedom. I’m proud that the United States has recognized a Polish journalist for her efforts in this cause. Earlier this year, TVN’s Bianka Zalewska was awarded the Department of State’s International Women of Courage Award. She has advocated for the people of Ukraine for more than a decade.
Bianka was injured by Russian forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in 2014, but that did not deter Bianka. She has shown courage and determination despite threats and disinformation campaigns against her, demonstrating unwavering commitment to documenting evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. And, I know there are many more Biankas all around Poland – and here at this very conference.
The United States of America sees the constitutional guarantees of freedom of the media in Poland as an unquestionable foundation of the democratic order. Even the right to criticize.
Political figures might not always like what the press is reporting. The coverage I get isn’t always positive and supportive. I’m judged and critiqued, but I still wouldn’t want it any other way.
It’s the press that holds the government and public officials accountable. You keep us in check. The voices of journalists are essential to ensuring transparent and trustworthy governance.
That’s why government influence over this process can be concerning. At times media are criticized for the opinions and research shared by guests on their programs. Criticism, of course, is fine. Healthy debate on all sides is the essence of freedom of speech, which is a core shared value among the United States, Poland, and our closest allies.
However, it is deeply troubling when the response is not debate, but an attempt to silence opinion. The media, as well as academics and commentators themselves, may face not only criticism but financial threats, such as through defamation suits, regulatory actions and investigations that carry the appearance of political punishment, harsh fines, or other means of suppressing unpopular opinions.
We must ensure that the media remains a place for a discussion of ideas and that democratic societies are open to debate. Diverse views must be shared, not silenced. We don’t want government officials deciding what’s fact and what’s fiction, what’s true and what’s false. That’s the hallmark of a country that thinks the people answer to the government, while we believe the government answers to the people.
I say this recognizing the great strides Poland has taken since 1989 to leave such a worldview in its past. That’s thanks to joint efforts by broadcasters, cable and telecommunications operators, local TV stations, experts, and authorities. They have worked to encourage legislation that supports free media, not suppresses it.
I also know that we aren’t perfect in the United States. We still have work to do to live up to our own democratic principles. But this is work that President Biden is committed to doing.
He’s investing in our democracy, while also supporting our partners around the world. And I’m proud to share that we are providing more resources to help sustain independent media and fact-based reporting.
This month, through USAID, the United States has launched Reporters Shield, a program that helps to protect members of the media from nuisance lawsuits.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation, otherwise known as SLAPPs, are often filed to financially exhaust journalists and media members; they are designed to prevent them from doing their work.
Reporters Shield is a way to fight back. It can help reduce the risk of lawsuits through training, and it also can fund legal assistance. This program is now available in Poland and much of Central Europe, across the media spectrum.
The Polish-American friendship has never been stronger, and I look forward to continuing to find ways to defend basic democratic principles together.
Wspólne ponosimy odpowiedzialność za przyszłość ludzkości, a działalność wolnych i niezależnych mediów ma teraz większe znaczenie niż kiedykolwiek. Raz jeszcze dziękuję za gościnę i życzę owocnych dyskusji na ten niezwykle ważny temat.
Dziękuję i do zobaczenia.
We have a shared responsibility for humanity’s future and the work of a free and independent media matters now more than ever. Thank you again for having me today and I wish you fruitful discussions on this critically important topic. Thank you.