On #WorldPressFreedomDay, Congrats to @StateDept For Holding Itself Accountable

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On May 2, 2021, Secretary Tony Blinken released a statement for World Press Freedom Day. Excerpt below:

Tomorrow, the United States joins the international community in celebrating World Press Freedom Day.  Information and knowledge are powerful tools, and a free and independent press is the core institution connecting publics to the information they need to advocate for themselves, make informed decisions, and hold governmental officials accountable.  The United States advocates for press freedom online and offline, and for the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide.

Freedom of expression and access to factual and accurate information provided by independent media are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies.  Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression includes the right of all individuals “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
[…]
The United States is committed to working in partnership with members of the media, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and other concerned governments to support access to information and defend freedom of expression and the brave journalists who face intimidation, harassment, arrest, and violence in exercising their rights.

Regardless of frontier. Well, now, let me tell you a story.
On March 12, 2021, the State Department announced the appointment of former Ambassador Pamela Spratlen as the Senior Advisor to the Health Incident Response Task Force (HIRTF), aka the Havana Syndrome task force reporting directly to the Department’s senior leadership. (See Ambassador Pamela Spratlen Designated as Senior Advisor to Department Health Incident Response Task Force).
On March 13, I sent an email to the State Department asking if I may submit emailed questions for Ambassador Spratlen to respond regarding the Havana Syndrome and the Task Force.
On Monday, March 15, I got a response from the State Department: “Sure you can send along your questions.”
On Tuesday, March 16, I got another email from the State Department: “Yes, you can forward your questions.”
Late on March 16, I forwarded  sixteen questions via email for Ambassador Spratlen. See the questions here.
On Wednesday, March 17, the State Department acknowledged receipt of questions sent via email: “Thank you for sending this along.”
Then crickets.  Then some more crickets.
On April 5, 2021, I sent a follow-up inquiry.
Still crickets.
On April 8, I sent a follow-up to my follow-up.
There was just radio silence.
As often the case, we get an unofficial chirping cricket. Maybe it was the middle of the night, who knows?
No response was forthcoming. Now apparently, “traditionally State has not engaged with anonymous bloggers.”
Whoops! That was so funny I almost died laughing. This blog has been running almost uninterrupted as a pseudonymous blog since 2008. We can tell you for a fact that the State Department has traditionally engaged with this blogger.
Via the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A frequently cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:
Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
[…]
These long-standing rights to anonymity and the protections it affords are critically important for the Internet. As the Supreme Court has recognized the Internet offers a new and powerful democratic forum in which anyone can become a “pamphleteer” or “a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”
The State Department at another time has respected these rights, and has traditionally responded to our inquiries through the years. We’ve covered Foggy Bottom at the tail end of Rice’s tenure, and through Clinton, Kerry, Tillerson, and Pompeo’s tenures. We’ve been around so long, we have a headful of gray follicles to show for it.
In 2017 during Tillerson’s tenure, State suddenly stopped responding to this blog’s inquiries or request for comments. What happened in 2017? Tillerson and his crew caused quite a mess in Foggy Bottom. On April 1, 2017, we wrote  Inside @StateDept: Leaked Cable Provides Guidance For ‘America First’ Cost Savings Initiatives to celebrate the time honored tradition of April Fools’ Day. Back in those days, we still had some humor left.
Apparently, the State Department’s leadership at that time not only got really pissed but also lost its damn mind over a joke. This blog was sent a take down email which we published.  See Aww, @StateDept Sends Official Take Down Request For April Fools’ Day Cable.
And that was the end of our exciting relationship with the nameless “Senior State Department Officials” who all held office at the Public Affairs bureau. No one from Foggy Bottom’s PA shop ever wrote back to say, we can’t engage with you anymore because my gosh! you’re an anonymous blogger! (For the record, we’re not anonymous, we have a pen name!).
One contact from another bureau eventually told us … so sorry, we’re not allowed to respond to you.
Fast forward to 2021, the new administration came to office. We got exactly one response from the PA shop before the somebodies shut it down and put our emails back in the “do not respond” lock box.
Truth to tell, a non-responsive State Department was not the end of the world. We are not short of unofficial sources, and typically, what we get from our unofficial sources are better information than the carefully crafted PA talking points. Still, there are times when we do need to have the official word of the State Department. There are occasions  when we need to have its officials on record on specific issues, or to be accountable for the government’s actions. As Secretary Blinken message for this year’s World Press Freedom say, “Information and knowledge are powerful tools, and a free and independent press is the core institution connecting publics to the information they need to advocate for themselves, make informed decisions, and hold governmental officials accountable.” 
And here we are, whether Foggy Bottom likes it or not, we’ve been connecting information with the public since 2008. To the 7th floor folks reading this blog — we may not be the newspaper of record but the Havana Syndrome questions  are for this blog’s readers who needed answers to these questions just the same.  Why? Because there are no answers from inside the building. Or worse, folks fear retaliation when pursuing answers to questions like these.
So just one last question. Is the State Department, our great defender of First Amendment Rights and World Press Freedom around the world using this blogger’s pseudonymity as an excuse not to answer questions about its own handling of attacks which resulted in injuries among its employees, and god knows who else? See Havana Syndrome Questions @StateDept Refuses to Answer.

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#RememberWhen: Secretary of State Answers Questions on World Press Freedom Day

Posted: 3:04 pm ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’]

 

Via state.gov:

May 3rd marks the annual commemoration of World Press Freedom Day. The United States values freedom of the press as a key component of democratic governance. Democratic societies are not infallible, but they are accountable, and the exchange of ideas is the foundation for accountable governance. In the U.S. and in many places around the world, the press fosters active debate, provides investigative reporting, and serves as a forum to express different points of view, particularly on behalf of those who are marginalized in society. The U.S. commends journalists around the world for the important role they play, and for their commitment to the free exchange of ideas.

The U.S. in particular salutes those in the press who courageously do their work at great risk. The press is often a target of retaliation by those who feel threatened by freedom of expression and transparency in democratic processes. Journalists are often the first to uncover corruption, to report from the front lines of conflict zones, and to highlight missteps by governments. This work places many journalists in danger, and it is the duty of governments and citizens worldwide to speak out for their protection and for their vital role in open societies.

Below is a photo of then Secretary Kerry taking questions from reporters after his remarks on World Press Freedom Day last year. There is no such event this year.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry listens to a question from AP reporter Matt Lee after the Secretary’s remarks on World Press Freedom Day at the top of the Daily Press Briefing at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 2016. [State Department Photo/Public Domain]

Secretary Tillerson who has a documented aversion to journalists released a statement marking World Press Freedom Day:

Today, on World Press Freedom Day, we reaffirm our commitment to promoting the fundamental principles of a free press around the world. We honor those men and women who work tirelessly, often at great personal risk, to tell the stories we would not otherwise hear. They are the guardians of democratic values and ideals.

The United States has a strong track record of advocating for and protecting press freedom. The U.S. Department of State offers development programs and exchanges for media professionals, supports the free flow of information and ideas on the internet, and provides the tools and resources needed to keep journalists safe.

Ethical and transparent media coverage is foundational to free and open societies. It promotes accountability and sparks public debate. Societies built on good governance, strong civil society, and an open and free media are more prosperous, stable, and secure.

For five years ending in 2016, the State Department had a “Free The Press” campaign timed for World Press Freedom Day. It usually highlights for a week — at the Daily Press Briefing leading up to May 3rd — various journalists and media outlets (including bloggers) who are censored, attacked, threatened, intimidated, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed because of their reporting.  DRL’s https://www.humanrights.gov does not have anything on this campaign for 2017 so this annual campaign is effectively done and over.

Some parts of the organization, are nonetheless doing the best they can to mark May 3rd. Share America, part of IIP, the foreign public facing arm of arm of the State Department is doing this:

And one of the two remaining under secretaries at State did this with BBG:

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May 3 – World Press Freedom Day 2017: Critical Minds for Critical Times

Posted: 2:36 am ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’]

 

World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. Since then, 3 May, the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day. (via)

The UN says that World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to:

  • celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
  • assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
  • defend the media from attacks on their independence;
  • and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Read more about this year’s themes in the  Concept note.  Meanwhile, around the world, press freedom has deteriorated, and has declined to the lowest point in 13 years.

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