Administrator Samantha Power at Foreign Policy Magazine's “Independent Media and the Advancement of Democracy”

Speeches Shim

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

MODERATOR: Ambassador Power, let me just start with this: What is America's role when it comes to strengthening free speech around the world?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think there's a policy dimension to it and a programmatic dimension. And I'm privileged at USAID to be able to play some small role with tremendous talent and technical expertise that has amassed at this Agency in both of those domains. So from a policy standpoint, it entails standing up for the independence of media, even media whose stories we don't like. And so, of course, using the platforms that we have as government officials, understanding the role, the checks and balances that the media perform and how essential they are to the strength of our democracy. The viability of our democracy even. And that is incredibly important, and even important in an age of misinformation where we also, of course, want to make sure that media is not being used to cause harm and loss of life as it has been used, especially social media. And then in the Hobbesian world there to incite violence and to spread disinformation that has cost lives, for example, in the COVID pandemic. And also even on issues like climate change, where there is so much disinformation and the health impacts of climate change, I think can’t be overstated.

So getting this balance right in our own society has proven excruciating and I don't think we are optimizing just yet. It’s safe to say that's not my area of jurisdiction or expertise. But then internationally, we have the chance, of course, to stand up for the free speech of civil society, of independent media, of citizens, of opposition politicians. And then on the programmatic side, and here in coming to USAID just six months ago, we've been spending a lot of time in advance of the Democracy Summit, which you've spoken about, thinking about what programmatic adjustments do we need to make, given the role of misinformation, given the financial viability challenges that independent media are facing, not just again, where we all grew up, maybe here in the United States, but all around the world. Those same questions of how you make independent media sustainable, how in a world of free information are there models whereby journalists can get paid, which they certainly need to do.

But more than that when we see oligarchs and repressive governments using lawsuits now, as well as intimidation and harassment to try to put journalists out of business, how do we step in and preserve those public goods globally? And so that's why one of the things that I announced about a month ago is a new defamation fund, a kind of fund that would allow, potentially, journalists to be insured so that they don't have to worry about intimidation, harassment, violence, as well as being sued as a form of intimidation and harassment and is a way of, again, defeating their efforts to ensure accountability. So we're looking at what are the threats and how do we adjust to meet, what amount to pretty fundamentally different threats to independent media and free speech than we would have seen, let's say, of course, in the wake of the Cold War, when a lot of the ideas for how we support civil society and independent media, first were put into practice. We've adjusted over the years. I think all donors and foundations have adjusted to some extent, but I'm not sure that if we start from scratch right now, in this moment, with these threats and challenges, that we'd be exactly where we are. So we're trying to take that fresh look.

MODERATOR: Right. You know, Ambassador Power, just from what you've been saying over the last couple of minutes, it seems to me you're sort of recognizing, with a sense of humility, America's problems at home, but also a sense of responsibility about America's role around the world. And I realize that's a -- it's a difficult thing to balance. And I asked this question because, you know, I grew up outside of America and I chose to move here. And it's so clear to me that America has lost some of its sheen in recent years. I mean, if you look at the events of January 6, if you consider the vaccine myths and disinformation routinely peddled even now in certain parts of U.S. media, and if you consider a general breakdown of trust in the media here, there's a case to be made that if someone such as yourself is traveling around the world and bringing the message that you are rightly bringing to other countries, why would those countries look to the United States for guidance at all? And how do you counter that?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yeah. I mean, it is different. I mean, having January 6th happen and having large swaths of our society deeply skeptical about election results that were verified in a whole range of venues. Certainly, the proliferation of claims of fake news also to delegitimize the idea of truth. We saw a proliferation of that or a spread of that tactic when it was being used by very influential Americans. You saw a spike in its use by others globally.

And so there's no question that people that we engage with internationally are very aware of events and developments in our country. They're also aware that, for example, social media platforms that are based here and in principle would be regulated here or would be engaged here by American policymakers, that those platforms are venues and vehicles for the spread of misinformation well beyond -- I mean there's COVID; there's climate. There is extremism and radicalization, which we know have inhabited parts of the internet for a long time. But if you look at places like Sri Lanka or Burma where the genocide against the Rohingya, where social media was a critical tool in propagating hate and even getting people to take up arms to attack a minority community and indeed to purge them from the society. And so there are lots of dimensions to the American experience and experiment, such as it is that come up in our engagements internationally.

But you know, I think the spirit of the Democracy Summit is that many countries now, including the United States, are dealing with these challenges at the same time. And we have a lot to learn from our engagements internationally as well. From how people keep their elections safe; what are the best tools to fight vaccine hesitancy? We haven't cracked the code on that; we've made some headway. The sources of vaccine hesitancy and the disinformation is different in every country I visit. I was just in Moldova where vaccination rates are quite low, and a lot of that, again has to do with what certain actors are putting on the internet, but also certain traditions that lead communities not to trust government.

And so in every community that one engages, one has to try to go and dig deep into the very specific customized ways in which democracy or health, for that matter, is being threatened. And I think just to bring the self-awareness that we, as Americans have to bring to our programmatic decisions and to those dialogues, I actually think you can, far from erecting new barriers between us and our interlocutors internationally, can actually create more of a sense of we're all in this together. We're facing a shared set of challenges, and no one has cracked the code just yet.

MODERATOR: Yeah, indeed. I think that's a good way to do it if everyone's in the same boat, as it were. Just staying with the Democracy Summit for a minute. We discussed a little bit of this before you came on, but we didn't get into specifics about the sort of the media kind of agenda and specific ways in which countries can try to get together to sort of create better outcomes, a better climate for a free and fair media around the world. Are you able to give us any insights on what we can expect?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I won't get ahead of President Biden or very specific initiatives that may come out of the Summit. But just to say that part of what the Summit is meant to achieve is to kick off processes with countries that may be shakier than is ideal on some of these principles. So there's scrutiny, of course, about who's coming to the Democracy Summit and that's appropriate.

But the goal is that countries will make commitments, including as it relates to protecting and respecting the rights of independent media and that we, the United States and other countries who are like minded, will work with those countries that have made commitments -- and including ourselves -- to see through, follow through then in the months ahead. And sometimes that might entail USAID funding in support of something that has been created in a particular country. Sometimes, again, maybe just require pressing for there to be follow through. The implementation we know is not going to be perfect. We've all been to enough summits to know that pledging conferences, whether funding or of real world actions like those envisaged in the wake of the Democracy Summit are often made not with the full mindset of thinking through the follow through or even intending to. But that's our job and that's civil society's job. It gives civil society and independent media in these countries a hook to hold those governments accountable.

I will say just -- I've touched on this -- that I think what we know we need to do, whether at the Summit or beyond, is we do need to increase support for public interest media. We do need to work -- and this is something USAID is already doing -- we work with independent media and local media around the world trying to enhance their financial viability. And here I just caught the tail end of what Patrick was saying.

But you know, again, we come to questions of financial viability for media with humility also, given the struggles that so many of the publications in the areas where many of us grew up, the struggles those publications have faced. But just to give an example, USAID in the Balkans has in recent years helped 10 media partners in five countries increase their aggregate audience reach by 65 percent. Increasing their organizational capacities by about 15 percent, increasing their advertising revenue by 1,000 percent. So you can't just think about content and even the regulatory environment, which we push on either through providing technical assistance or through policy engagement. You have to think about all of that, and making sure that there's a space for the media to do their business. But as I said earlier, there also has to be a means by which those publications or social media sites or whatever it is have a way of actually being financially viable.

And then the third dimension of it is boosting support to investigative journalists, and the defamation fund is one example of that. We have partners, the Organized Crime and Corruption Project is a major partner in reporting on the Pandora Papers and that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists coordinated that. This OCCRP network, you couldn't do that just with the free market alone, right? Six-hundred journalists involved in the Pandora Papers effort: 75 from that OCCRP network and spending years going through three terabytes of documents. We have to think structurally about what are the means, again, to support those public goods. And so Johnny Walsh on my team, he's the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Rights, and Governance, has been giving a ton of thought to this, engaging with journalists all around the world in the 80 countries where USAID has missions, but also with those based in donor countries like this one who've been investing in these models for some time.

And again, the question is not how do we do more of the same? Maybe it's how do we do more of the same and take account now the need for media literacy, which we weren't -- USAID wasn't thinking about the need for media literacy, the need for young people to think about how to sort through what was true or what was false. Ten years ago that wasn't on our minds.

MODERATOR: And digital literacy.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: And digital literacy, which is where the media literacy most lives these days it seems.

MODERATOR: That's right. That's right. Ambassador Power, I know you have to go. So I'm just going to say thank you, and I hope we can have you back.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you for having me and thanks for doing this above all. Such an important event you're hosting here today. Let's see it through. Thank you.

Last updated: November 26, 2022

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