Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel talks global press freedom, receives pushback

Catie Edmonson,

Image from article, with caption: Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel spoke at the Journalism School Monday on the global freedom of press.

Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel’s speech at the Journalism School on Monday night sparked an impassioned response from freedom of press advocates, who responded to his remarks by questioning aspects of the U.S. government’s approach to promoting the freedom of the global press.

Stengel, the former managing editor of Time magazine, delivered remarks on the “shrinking of freedom of speech space,” and highlighted the work the State Department is doing to protect journalists in conflict zones. Stengel is tasked with leading the government’s efforts to confront ideological support for terrorism.

He also participated in a panel discussion on global press freedom with Agnes Callamard, the director of the Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression project, Ann Cooper, a professor at the Journalism School, and Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that promotes press freedom and defends journalists’ rights.

Callamard said that governments—including in the United States—have created a “monster” in their efforts to respond to terrorism, and accused foreign governments of using “overbroad” laws designed to combat terrorism to imprison journalists.

“While I’m pleased that you mentioned that press freedom is an essential component of U.S. foreign policy, from where I sit, to me this is an afterthought,” Callamard said. “To me, what you have done tonight is highlighting how press freedom has been lip service in name of a bigger cause—national security without essential freedom… that, to me, is meaningless.”

In response, Stengel said that there is “great urgency on the counterterrorism front,” which occasionally compels the U.S. government to have “difficult conversations with allies.”

“Diplomacy is about different and mixed messages—we are working with the same country on some issues, and we are behind the scenes criticizing the same country and working with them to change,” Stengel said. “Sometimes we get results, sometimes we don’t.”

Simon praised the government’s recent greater engagement on behalf of imprisoned journalists, but said that he was uneasy with Stengel’s description of the government’s efforts to combat terrorist “propaganda.”

“I’m frankly troubled you’d talk about advocacy on behalf of journalists and efforts to talk about propaganda in the same breath,” Simon said, adding that governments can try to silence journalists by branding their work “propaganda.”Simon encouraged Stengel to use the First Amendment as a framework for determining which speech the government should support.

“I don’t know how exportable the First Amendment is, but I do think that we do speak up for these values which are somewhat unique,” Stengel said in response. “There’s a continuum we all operate under between security and privacy and free speech. We’re always in search of a more perfect union.”

In his speech prior to the discussion, Stengel spoke of the challenges facing journalists covering authoritarian governments, which he said are now “more profound and more disturbing” than before.

“Journalists once upon a time had a kind of safe pass. You were trying to bring truth to the public,” Stengel said. “Journalists are targets now because of what they do.”

Stengel said that the State Department is currently in the process of expanding safety training for journalists in conflict zones, and is looking to establish “clear protocol” that diplomats at embassies around the world would follow to help journalists under threat.

“The U.S. government has to speak out all the time for journalists who are wrongly imprisoned, and we do this regularly behind the scenes,” Stengel said. “We need to do it publicly.”

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