It was perhaps the largest gathering of public diplomacy advocates and international broadcasters and media scholars ever held in America. The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) organized a day-long conference May 7 at the U.S. Institute of Peace in an atrium within sight of the Lincoln Memorial.
Highlight of the day: an address by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a new member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who eloquently summarized the role of America’s free press and expanding avenues worldwide for defending truth in journalism.
As Senator Cruz put it: “Our principles can tear down walls, can topple tyrannies, can promote freedom. America should consistently be a voice for freedom. We should be a voice for human rights. We should be a voice for democracy, because that truth is powerful and it can transform the world.
“That’s also where an American free press and the USAGM come into play. Now to be clear, we don’t ask journalists to promote the viewpoint of the United States government. There are plenty of countries in the world where governments run their media and the media is little more than a propaganda outlet for whatever the policy views are of particular regime in power.
“Instead,” Senator Cruz added, “we believe in a different kind of press, one that aligns with American principles. It’s a testament to our system of government that we encourage and protest dissent. That we encourage and protect a free media because freedom depends upon a free media.”
More than a hundred representatives of global multimedia broadcasters and scholars attended the Media for Democracy Forum to exchange ideas about strengthening “truth power” in a digital age. All five taxpayer-funded international overseas networks were represented: Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic (MBN), and Radio-TV Marti (OCB) in Spanish to Cuba.
Other media, governmental and civil society organizations participated, as well, including the National Endowment for Democracy, The Atlantic Council, Freedom House, IREX, Deutsche Welle, CNN, the Hudson Institute, the University of Southern California, the State and Defense Departments and USAID.
CEO John Lansing of the USAGM (until recently known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors) introduced Senator Cruz and noted: “Like defense, development and diplomacy, U.S. international media (the five networks listed above) are an essential part of our standing on the world stage.” He noted that these networks reach a combined multimedia audience in 100 countries totaling 345,000,000.
Principal points made by panelists during the Media for Democratic Freedom (M4DF) conference:
- “Between 2009 and 2019, there was more change in media delivery systems than in the preceding four decades. Let’s think seriously about the digital divide. We have to be aware of the potential of new media and its impact.” — Alec Ross, author of the global best seller, The Industries of the Future. The book has been translated into 24 languages and explores the worldwide technological and economic trends of the coming decade relevant to media and human development.
- “Both Russia and China have invested in shaping the media of other countries, particularly in Central Europe and Latin America. Fifty three percent of users in an electronic poll feel that press freedom will decline, worldwide in the next 10 years.” — Chris Walker, vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
- “We need to watch what works. Because of our broadcasts, Venezuela’s Maduro is aware of what has been happening in Myanmar (Burma) which expelled the Rohingyas and in Iran during huge anti-government protests early last year. Our audiences in China have gone up, and VOA’s Charter has held up remarkably well over the years.” — Amanda Bennett, Director, VOA, and two time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in leading U.S. daily newspapers.
- “In Asia, the worst offenders are China and North Korea. Six of our reporters in northwest China follow closely what Beijing calls ‘re-education camps’ for an estimated one million Uighurs accused of anti-regime activities. PRC media threaten those reporters’ families who live in the U.S. This global shaping space matters. For international broadcasters, freedom is not free — it demands investment by all of us.” — Libby Liu, President, Radio Free Asia.
- “RFE/RL can be an example. The U.S. government can encourage non-government organizations to help identify and neutralize media organizations of hostile opponents. Our programs to Ukraine are on two major networks there with an estimated two to three million viewers. They can also watch our programming stream on YouTube and Facebook.”— Natalia Sedletska, author and host, RFE/RL investigative TV program, Schemes.
- “We have detailed info on the media of 200 countries. I think we all agree here that China has the most sophisticated disinformation media. In Russia, we’ve seen them rolling out wave after wave of new attacks against open media. We try to counsel on ways of countering network censorship.” — Arturo Filasto, founder of the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a project monitoring internet censorship and network interference globally.
- “It was our Constitution’s First Amendment that talks about a free press. If you lose this, you lose everything else.” — U.S. Representative Chris Stewart (R-Utah), of the House Appropriations and Intelligence Committees and New York Times No. 1 best-selling author of Seven Miracles That Saved America and The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World.
In wrapping up the conference, USAGM consultant and former NBC President and former CBS News Executive Editor and Producer Steve Capus told a story that sums up what a free press means to geopolitics in any age: “In my office, the dominant feature is a gigantic painting of President Ronald Reagan standing before the Brandenburg Gate (in Berlin) saying the words: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ Many don’t know the back story behind those words. I believe those are the most important words uttered by any leader in modern times.
“The back story is that three times, the State Department edited those words out of the speech. And three times Reagan, with his own hands, wrote them back (in). And they proceeded to have arguments where the State Department said, ‘Mr. President, you can’t say this. Mr. President, it’s too belligerent. Mr. President, this is unrealistic. We know that the Berlin Wall will stand for all eternity. So you cannot say something like this.
“And each time, Reagan wrote it back in and said with a smile: ‘You don’t understand. This is the whole point of the speech.’ And just a few years after those words were uttered, the Berlin Wall was torn to the ground. That’s important to reflect on. The United States didn’t bomb the Berlin Wall. We didn’t send tanks in to demolish it. It was simply the words, the power of speaking the truth. And tyrannies fear truth…”
It turned out that Mr. Capus had the last word at the USAGM conference: “And finally, your mission is to connect people. Many of your outlets,” he concluded, “are broadcasting to places of alienation and isolation. In too many of these places, people have lost hope. And the work you do is invaluable in bringing news of a different world. Speaking to power, speaking to oppression, speaking for freedom, speaking for human rights is powerful. And it is at the very core of your mission. So for that, I simply say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More