Abuja | May 4, 2015
(as prepared for delivery)
I am honored to join the fourth estate today. To use my favorite Nigerian expression: all protocols observed.
This is an exciting time in Nigeria as the nation begins its first transfer of power between political parties via democratic means. The United States remains deeply committed to working with you, the Nigerian people, and with your government for many years to come.
Let me begin by commending the media for playing a vital role in Nigeria’s historical democratic exercise. Your reporting set the public’s expectations for the elections, a process judged by domestic and international observers as credible and transparent with fairly limited violence. In particular, I was impressed by the media’s role in educating the general public on the use of the permanent voter cards, which greatly contributed to the overall success of the national and state elections. I was also very impressed with the manner in which Nigeria media took up the cause of non-violence and regularly called on candidates to publicly take what I called the non-violence pledge. The Nigerian people decided and they were the true victors of this exercise.
Today, we celebrate an important freedom—the freedom of the press. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day to highlight the importance of a free press and to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, World Press Freedom Day received its inspiration from the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of free press principles put together by African journalists in 1991.
The U.S. Constitution clearly articulates freedom of the press in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:
Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
A free press, therefore, remains a core value of the United States. Thomas Jefferson put it well when he said, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
Free, independent media satisfy the public’s need to know what affects their well-being and quality of life. It is also through free media that the people let their governments know their opinion on policies and actions. This dialogue between the government and the governed is most effective in an environment where all feel free and safe to express their views.
With great freedom also comes great responsibility. At times, media have had difficulty in reporting accurate and balanced information. In addition to covering the opinions of individuals and policies of governments, it is important that the media examine the underlying facts supporting them. Good journalism relies on accurate, in-depth, and critical reporting of facts on matters of public concern or interest.
With Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act in place, individuals and organizations can test the application of the law in its broadest terms. As you are well aware, the United States has long had its own Freedom of Information Act, otherwise known as “FOIA.” Enacted in 1966, this legislation gave citizens the right to access a vast amount of unfiltered information from the federal government about how and why decisions are made, and the impact of those decisions. In the years since, that access has been extended to state and local governments as well. We often describe this statute as the law which keeps citizens in-the-know about their government. There is a broad understanding in the United States that the public has a right to know the details of the activities of its government and that publication of this information promotes accountability and transparency.
What is true in the United States is also true here in Nigeria. Your own Freedom of Information Act benefits all stakeholders—government, media, civil society, and the general public. For the media, this law has the potential to make it possible to check the facts and underlying assumptions put forward by stakeholders on every issue. However, it also lays a serious responsibility on journalists to use the available information responsibly.
As important as it is, the Freedom of Information Act is not the only tool at your disposal. As President Ronald Regan famously said, “trust but verify.” A balanced news story or opinion piece does not rely on information from a single source, no matter how trustworthy. An extra phone call or email always pays off to verify a statement’s accuracy or check a fact, or to ask for a reaction to information you have received from someone else. I know many of you regularly check in with the Public Affairs staff here at the Embassy before filing your reports to be sure that information you have received about the U.S. government’s positions on issues, plans, and actions are accurate and fully understood. I want to thank you for that and I want to encourage you all to follow that practice with us and the rest of your sources.
As the saying goes, “To whom much is given, much is required.” That is as true for public leaders and public servants as it is for reporters. For governments at all levels and on all continents, providing information remains a critical component of promoting an enduring democracy. Where information is scarce, conjecture and rumor enjoy veritable “field days.” When people can ask for and receive information about issues important to them, they gain a greater stake in governance. Providing that information is a responsibility we all share.
The United States, for its part, will continue to support the strengthening of Nigeria’s democratic institutions and the enforcement of basic human rights by promoting freedom of information and of the press. I hope you all have a fruitful discussion about media freedom in Nigeria and how that principle was reflected in the recent elections.