May 15, 2014
“From 100 yards away, the freshly turned earth of the field appeared to be covered with haphazard dots. Five feet away, the dots became empty shoes, shattered eyeglasses, and decaying clothing…No evidence of battles having been fought was found.” Thus begins journalist David Rohde’s account of the mass graves he witnessed in the Balkan town of Srebrenica in 1995. He exposed Europe’s worst massacre of civilians since World War II, and as a result, Bosnian Serb authorities arrested and imprisoned him. Mr. Rohde was eventually released, and his courageous act of following a story until its difficult end changed history. The story of Srebrenica painfully altered the view of humanitarian intervention and prevented a great crime from being buried along with its 8,000 victims. Mr. Rohde showed that injustice is combated by truth, and the pursuit of truth begins with inquiry.
As we celebrate World Press Freedom this month, the U.S. Embassy honors journalists who have made great sacrifices in the pursuit of truth. Their dedication reminds us of the fundamental importance of a free media in a democratic society. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, stated, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Jefferson understood that press freedom does not solely exist for the benefit of journalists, but for the benefit of the entire citizenry. A democratic society must be honestly informed – free people must know when power is abused, where corruption exists, and why decisions are made. A free press is the guardian of a free people.
Throughout the world the United States advocates for the democratic principle of free expression. We welcome the Zambian government’s commitment to rule of law and urge the government to fully support press freedom and media independence. The United States government commends the Zambian government for supporting the establishment of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the Media Ethics Council. These steps will help ensure that a plurality of voices exists within a professional press corps.
As Zambia debates a people-driven constitution and concerns about cadre violence, the media needs to inform the public about these issues in all their complexity. Debate and candid discussion are essential. A media – unhindered from harassment, unburdened by bias – has a vital role to play in fostering an open dialogue to help citizens debate and discuss the framework of their democracy.
To this end, the U.S. Embassy supports the Zambian media. The U.S. government places Zambian journalists in the Fulbright Scholar and International Visitor Leadership programs, and media speakers from the United States work with the Zambian media to build their investigative and reporting skills. The U.S. Embassy also hosts discussions with journalists, including a recent session on press freedom that was led by ZNBC Director General Chibamba Kanyama and Managing Director of the Times of Zambia Godfrey Malama. The U.S. Embassy is pleased to have contributed over many years to media training in Zambia that has enhanced the skills and perspectives of journalists.
A free press must not only be ethical and beyond the influence of vested interests, it must be able to conduct its inquiries without fear of recrimination. In its 2014 press freedom report, Freedom House downgraded its assessment of Zambia’s press freedom, citing the harassment of journalists, internet restrictions, the revocation of broadcast licenses, and the use of libel laws to intimidate government opponents. We have deep concerns about efforts to silence the media, since the press is, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “the lifeblood of any democracy.”
The United States and Zambia share the same constitutional heritage that began 800 years ago with the Magna Carta. We share the same democratic principles of liberty and equality before the law. We share a belief as democracies, which totalitarian governments can never allow, that citizens who are entrusted with competing claims of truth and falsehood are a better-informed citizenry and a freer one too. The American patriot Thomas Paine declared, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” A free and independent press guards our democratic principles and reinvigorates them.
As we celebrate World Press Freedom, let us, the people of the United States and Zambia, honor the role of independent media in our democratic societies and commit to protect a free press as the lifeblood of our cherished liberty.