World Press Freedom Day 2023

Remarks by
Deputy Assistant Secretary Enrique Roig
May 3, 2023

Thank you, Mr. Chair and distinguished excellencies for the chance to join you for this commemoration of World Press Freedom Day. My name is Enrique Roig. As a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, I am honored to address the Permanent Council today representing the United States’ membership in the OAS Group of Friends for Freedom of Expression and Journalism.

This Friends Group is important, this year in particular, as it serves to help us advance the current U.S. Chairmanship of the Freedom Online Coalition, established in 2011 to support Internet freedom and protect human rights online globally.

Journalists play a vibrant role in democratic societies, Mr. Chair, providing accurate information, increasing accountability, and drawing attention to human rights abuses and corruption. This is reinforced explicitly in Article 4 of our Inter American Democratic Charter, which states that “transparency in government activities … and freedom of expression and of the press are essential components of the exercise of democracy.”

Journalists must be able to do their jobs without fear of violence, detention, or frivolous lawsuits intended to muzzle them by embroiling them in drawn-out legal proceedings. Independent journalists are not the opposition or voices of dissent. Their function is to inform the public and bring facts to light, which provides accountability.
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Criminalization of journalism through restrictive laws or abuse of the law should be of concern to us all. In Central America, digital news outlet El Faro announced it’s moving its operations to Costa Rica due to continued threats, including numerous spurious audits on the outlet and its members. The outlet’s phones were infected with Pegasus, 34 of its members have precautionary measures granted by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, and many of the journalists are now in exile.

This example underscores the important role the OAS and the Inter American Human Rights System play in supporting investigative journalism and raising awareness about the challenges to media independence throughout the Americas.

This is why the State Department supports and funds the ongoing work of the Inter-American Commission’s Unit for Human Rights Defenders, its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, and the new Center for Media Integrity in the Americas, which serves as a hub to support fact-based, rigorous journalism and social media information dissemination.

These efforts are just part of the actions the United States is taking globally to protect and promote press freedom, Mr. Chair.

For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is launching the Reporters Shield program to help protect investigative journalists from defamation lawsuits by providing insurance liability coverage to cover the cost of defending journalists, civil society activists, and their organizations from defamation, libel, and other lawsuits meant to silence their reporting. It will begin accepting members in later this month.

Globally, independent local media are facing an existential crisis due to the collapse of traditional business models, forcing them to reinvent their business structures to meet consumer preferences and compete in the digital marketplace. Through USAID’s new Media Viability Accelerator (MVA) data platform, media outlets can increase their understanding of the markets, audiences, and strategies that will maximize profitability.

We launched as a public-private partnership at the Second Summit for Democracy in March 2023, the MVA is run by Internews, Microsoft, and partner organizations, which share the mission to preserve fact-based news and information media as the ”fourth pillar” of democracy.

Under the interagency Voices initiative, the U.S. government is using all of its tools—public and private diplomacy, foreign assistance programming, and enforcement authorities, among other elements—to protect, defend, and promote civic space in Central America. And that includes working alongside like-minded partners—to advocate for adherence to international human rights obligations, such as freedom of expression.

The International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM), supports development, sustainability, and independence of independent media – especially in resource-poor and fragile settings—as they try to compete in the digital marketplace. USAID provided crucial seed funding of $20 million to IFPIM at the first Summit for Democracy in 2021, endorsed by President Joe Biden. Since then IFPIM has received an additional $26.8 million from a variety of democracies, corporations and philanthropies. We encourage the governments represented here to join the effort, as we have seen a rise of digital authoritarianism and the misuse of digital technologies.

Mr. Chair, the United States announced at the second Summit for Democracy that it worked through the Freedom Online Coalition to develop the Guiding Principles on Government Use of Surveillance Technologies, condemning the arbitrary surveillance and targeting of journalists and others.

More than 40 Summit for Democracy participating states have endorsed the Guiding Principles so far. Of those, seven are from this hemisphere. I encourage all OAS member states to join us in endorsing and adhering to these Principles.

This is so important as more governments are taking steps to control access to information on the Internet, whether through shutdowns, slowdowns, outright censorship, or the misuse of spyware.

President Biden also issued an Executive Order that prohibits the operational use of commercial spyware by the U.S. Government when they pose a risk to national security or of being misused by foreign governments to enable human rights abuses.

Complementing the Executive Order, the United States joined an initial group of ten partners, including Canada and Costa Rica in endorsing the Joint Statement on Efforts to Counter the Proliferation and Misuse of Commercial Spyware, which aims to deepen international cooperation to mitigate the risks and drive reform in this opaque and unregulated industry.

My bureau, DRL, has also announced the launch of a Journalism Protection Platform to support programs that will promote and protect open and resilient information ecosystems by expanding the long-term sustainability of independent media outlets, including those in exile, enhancing the impact of investigative journalism, and bolstering outlets’ resistance to legal and regulatory challenges.

Let me close by speaking directly to those journalists and civil society stakeholders listening today — thank you for your courage and ongoing advocacy. Your work not only contributes to increasing people’s access to accurate information and holding those of us in government accountable… also strengthens the very fabric of democracy itself.

Thank you all very much. I look forward to working with all of you in support of press freedom and democratic accountability in advance of the June General Assembly.