I appreciate that UNESCO and the Swedish Embassy are co-hosting this event today on World Press Freedom. It’s very timely. Earlier this month we celebrated World Press Freedom Day and during the same month, to gather together to give attention to this issue is quite critical. Like you’ve heard from others, from our perspective, press freedom is a vital component in democracies and open societies. Reporting now is more important than ever — both as a reflection of the vast access to information but also in light of an unprecedented global pandemic.
Now, journalists – and I am so delighted that we have journalists who have joined us today and I am looking forward to hearing from them – they uncover the truth, they check abuse, they demand transparency. As a result, they keep societies informed and – as a reflection of the pandemic – keep us safer.
Now, 2020 and well into 2021, it’s been an interesting period. Journalists globally have faced greater threats than ever before. There are the obvious health risks that they face in uncovering the truth, in covering the stories, but also, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been a record number of journalists who have been imprisoned for seeking to do the work that we hope and expect them to do. In Cambodia and elsewhere, brave and courageous journalists are speaking truth to power. But we need to be honest, we need to be frank: Many of these journalists have paid a significant price.
Information, from our perspective, is a public good. It’s not a private commodity doled out, but it is a public good and that has been really essential during this pandemic. Let’s take an example here in Cambodia. We’ve had a lockdown period, a number of public health measures we’ve all complied with. They have been important as a public good to protect us and to navigate a substantial community outbreak. However, those measures included some pretty severe restrictions and the creation for a period of time of these “red zones.” Journalists helped us enormously by informing a wider audience of the physical and financial hardships that came about because of these red zones. Why was that important? At the end of the day, it incentivized government to learn from some mistakes and to do things better to ensure that human suffering was addressed. I think we will hear from our journalists that this was not an easy undertaking. Many of them were not in the end able to make access; others took significant risks, but they benefitted all of us by doing this.
You asked a question about the United States. We have relied on the media throughout the pandemic to question government responses to the pandemic, to verify and publicize information, including COVID testing and infection data, and then to tell us what it means. We all now banter about a common vocabulary – testing, contact tracing, community outbreak, herd immunity – as if we’d been speaking like this all our lives, but it is thanks to the media, to journalists, who translated this kind of development from the experts to us in the public.
We also expect the press to maintain standards. They need to verify health-related information. They need to protect medical data and privacy. By the same token, we expect government, all of us in government, to respect and protect press freedoms. This is a symbiotic relationship.
It’s very key to ensure that part of this story involves transparency. In the United States since the start of the pandemic, our White House, our Centers for Disease Control, our National Institutes for Health, other government entities, including state and local governments have provided daily briefings. We’ve heard that from my fellow ambassadors. These daily briefings have been critical for updates, critical for accountability, critical to evolve and change when circumstances merit, because of media coverage. In our case, they brought critical information to the American public quickly and provided consistently the avenues for journalists to challenge and question our government on behalf of the public.
It is incumbent on all of us to support and promote a free and independent media. In our countries, in all countries, and here in Cambodia, the pandemic has demonstrated how critically important that support is. Thank you very much.