Thursday, March 30, 2023

Washington, DC

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you so much. And I cannot overstate what a tremendous partner the Netherlands is on all things related to democracy, human rights, free media.

And, Minister Hoekstra, thank you for your, for your comments just now, for your leadership day to day. Again, it's a great partnership between our two countries. And thanks to everybody who's there in the audience and gathered virtually.

I think you know, one way to think about the importance of independent media is to reflect on moments when people are forced to live without it. And I was struck last year, Internews Ukraine, an NGO, produced a documentary that showed what happened when Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine cut off one community’s access to internet and to TV in Eastern Ukraine. And we’re all so besieged with information and social media and regular media, this was like a throwback because the community had no – almost no – access to any media for weeks. And there they were, at the center of the biggest story in the world – with no way of knowing how their fellow Ukrainians were inspiring the world with their resilience, how other nations were rallying behind Ukraine, including, of course, the Netherlands.

And then, as this documentary depicts, they figured out that they could still access the radio and immediately, the radio became a lifeline for the community. They were able to learn critical information about how people were coming together to weather the invasion. News you can use, as you say, but also as one woman put it, “some hope was born in us from hearing that we were not forgotten.” That’s sort of a profound reminder of even the simple good that media can do.

And autocrats target independent media because information empowers us. This is not, as they say, a bug; this is a design feature of repressive rule. And whether people are resisting an invasion, whether they are campaigning to replace corrupt leaders with reformers, taking on climate change – collective action really cannot begin without a collective understanding of the challenges and opportunities in front of us. 

Alexis de Tocqueville, back in the day, put it this way: he said media is how we “maintain civilization.” And that is high praise, but also, I think, really speaks to the indispensability.

So as you alluded to, Mr. Minister, independent media is facing existential challenges at the moment: one of them is what you talked about, which is a direct onslaught from autocrats. Another is the financial health crisis spurred by this rapidly transforming media environment. And this Summit, I think, has spent a lot of time talking about Freedom House’s research on freedom in the world because it gives us a baseline year to year to measure trends. 

What’s noteworthy and maybe gets a little bit less attention is that actually, for all of the declining indicators among human rights and civil liberties that their research tracks, freedom of the media and freedom of expression have declined the most. 

In the past 17 years, the number of countries that have a score of zero out of four on the media freedom indicator has more than doubled – from 14 to 33. And, again, that aligns with the 17 straight years of freedom in decline.

Powerful people who seek to control the narrative spread inaccurate information to drown out the truth. They’re silencing journalists. 

We not only now have intimidation, threats, and violence, and jail silence, but now repressive actors are using the lawsuit with great sophistication. Reporters Without Borders estimates that over the past two decades, the number of journalists killed for their work averaged 80 per year. 

And then on the business side, which is something we talked about at an event yesterday, some are referring to the threat to independent media as, and local media especially, as a “media extinction event.” Global newspaper ad revenue dropped by half in the last five years and are of course shifting, of course, from traditional to online. 

Just two companies, Facebook and Google, captured half of the total global digital advertising spent in 2020, the latest year for which we have figures. It’s probably higher now. And when it comes to developing countries where USAID works around the world, global advertisers often either don't advertise in those markets, or they pay less to show their ads, which reduces revenue even more. And so we’re seeing opinion news, so-called news, entertainment-based news over straight reporting. We’re seeing social media instead of fact-checked sources, and this is a challenge for us all. 

And so we have some ideas, I think. Together we are partnering with fellow democracies to try to recognize these two distinct challenges and come up with tools to address them.

Thank you.

NISHA PILLAI: Can you talk to us a bit about some of those tools, Administrator Power? You've laid out a number of challenges for us. And we're going to be dissecting them over the course of the next meeting that we're conducting. But from a U.S. government policy point of view, what do you see as the key tools that might be able to address some of those challenges?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I actually did an event yesterday with this, the president of Microsoft Brad Smith, about a new public-private partnership that we're launching with Microsoft, with Internews, with a number of other players. 

I want to use this occasion as a call to action for anybody who finds this intriguing and would like to get involved, or to join. 

But on the financial side, where I ended, I would say – this question of media viability. We you know, we can't just lament, the winds, the changing seasons, and the rise of social media, what it does to independent media. We have to try to break down the problem and address it. And so this partnership that we've pulled together draws on work USAID has done around the world, where, when you see let's say, you know, traditional print media trying to make the transition to online and it not working. Sometimes they actually just need better data. They need market surveys. They need to understand subscription basis. They need to make that transition that our major, you know, newspapers have made here in the United States, like the New York Times, the Washington Post. You know, what, what does it mean to transition to an online subscription basis and make it profitable? You know, or at least viable, if not, you know, a massive profit. 

So basically, Microsoft is working with us to help small media companies get the kind of data and analytic resources that big media conglomerates, like those I just mentioned, have been able to have over the years, but it's the smaller – there's just a market failure there. So we have to address that and not lament it. 

And then I mentioned the use of the lawsuit. 

I do think this is like a growing phenomenon where they're very clever, corrupt actors, repressive actors. They see they've got, you know, deeper pockets. And some of these plucky NGOs or independent journalists don't have the money to be able to withstand, you know, being sued. And that drives these individuals or these companies, small, you know, NGOs, these organizations out of business. 

So, USAID has started, along with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and the Cyrus Vance Center for International Justice, a new kind of public insurance fund, a pooled fund called Reporters Shield. Again, an insurance fund. And I just give you one example to concretize what it is, but basically journalists or NGOs could buy into this. 

In Serbia, there's a small investigative journalism organization called Krik. And it is currently dealing, and this is very illustrative of what's happening around the world, with 11 lawsuits from powerful forces trying to shut down their reporting. These actors or these bad actors are seeking a million dollars in damages. And that's more than three times Krik's annual budget. So Reporters Shield aims, if we can really crowd in more resources, we can do this at scale, to provide the tools for outlets like Krik to stay in business while they fend off these lawsuits. 

So even if they have facts and truth on their side, sometimes they just, the mere fact of the lawsuit is enough to quell their reporting or even quell their, you know, eradicate the publication, the organization itself. 

So we're going to be supporting legal defense of Investigative Journalists provide pro- and low- bono legal support via law for law firms. And again, ensure that they have insurance over time, again, especially when we can scale this, because this is such a broad based phenomenon, to give them that protection and that knowledge that we will stand with them in those moments of crisis.

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