Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for joining us today to celebrate the 2017 World Press Freedom Day, I am delighted to be here.
I’d like to begin by congratulating the President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mrs Funke Egbemode on her re-election. Congratulations, Funke.
Let me also extend special thanks to our partners, Lagos Television and our distinguished speakers who will be discussing various aspects related this year’s theme- “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”. I studied journalism at Northwestern University many years ago, so this annual celebration always strikes a chord with me.
In 1787, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote that a free press is an important component of a functioning democracy. He is famous for declaring that he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. As he said a couple of years later in 1823, “The only security of all is in a free press. …It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
His words remain as true and as relevant today, as they did when they were first uttered. In a democracy, the press has a duty to hold government leaders accountable to the people, holding up for scrutiny any abuses of power by elected officials. Their role as the government’s watchdog is key to the system of checks and balances that is fundamental to the smooth running of every democracy.
Unfortunately, not all governments accept such public attention. According to Reporters without Borders, more than a third of the world’s people live in countries where there is no press freedom. Most of them are quasi democracies, with systemic deficiencies in the electoral process, or countries where there is no system of democracy at all. Working under such conditions, journalists risk everything to hold regimes accountable.
Before my arrival in Nigeria four years ago I had read about the courage and sheer doggedness of the Nigerian press in the dark days of military dictatorship. In my time here, I have seen that you are still the voice of the forgotten. You have not lost your thirst for the truth or your willingness to go wherever a story leads you, thereby contributing to transparency, accountability, and good governance in your country.
The United States strongly supports freedom of the press. We believe that an unfettered press is essential for democracy to thrive. The United States passed the Freedom of Information Act in July 1966, which went into effect the following year. Since then, there have been numerous amendments to strengthen the law.
More recently, on May 17, 2010 to be specific, former U.S. President Barack Obama, signed the Freedom of the Press Act, named after Wall Street reporter Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan, four months after the September 11 attacks in the United States.
The United States however understands that with more freedom comes more responsibility. Advances in technology and increased reliance on social media platforms as sources of information make the accuracy and objectivity of your reporting crucial. Check and double check your facts before you put out a story- this increases your personal credibility and the reliability of your platform. Be thorough in your research and strive to look for every side of a story before you hit “send”.
Today we will listen to four distinguished speakers who will explore the role of fact checking; media ethics and law; twenty-first century gatekeeping and the skills needed for digital journalism. I am also excited about the inter-collegiate debate that is going to hold shortly after.
I hope the time we spend together helps you all hone the skills you need to be more effective in your newsgathering, analysis and deployment. Please make out time to speak with Public Affairs Officer Darcy Zotter and her team about the cultural, professional and educational programs we have for the press.
I’d like to conclude with a thought from James D. Wolfensohn, the ninth president of the World Bank Group. While speaking to the World Press Freedom Committee in 1999, he said
“A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.”
Thank you for your attention.