U.S. Embassy Kampala | April 1, 2021
(as prepared for delivery Hilton Garden Hotel, Kampala)
Kampala, Uganda — I am deeply honored to participate in this important event to underscore the vital role that a free press plays in democracy. Journalists shine a light on not only the many challenges and cruelties that are all too common in our lives, but also on stories that inspire and sustain us, particularly in difficult times such as the past year.
This past year the COVID-19 pandemic has upended all of our lives, and the media sector has not been immune to this upheaval. This is a difficult period for many Ugandan media outlets, with staff facing layoffs or uncertainty about their job prospects in a profession they love. Our thoughts are with our media colleagues as they weather this economic uncertainty.
As media navigate these challenging times, it is our duty to highlight the absolutely essential role they play in fostering an open society. The benefits of free press and media cannot be underestimated. Journalists give all of us the opportunity to know more about ourselves, our countries, our communities, our governments, and our shared world. Journalism gives voice to the voiceless, empowers citizens to engage in the life of their community, and exposes injustice. This makes us better. This makes us stronger.
Journalists promote transparency. They are fact finders. They are truth tellers. They inform the public on issues critical to their country’s future. They introduce new ideas and individuals working to change the world. And they can produce powerful stories that hold government, institutions, and influential individuals accountable. For all these reasons, journalists should be able to carry out their responsibilities without fear of violence or retribution. Because journalism is not a crime.
No matter the reasons, when journalists are attacked, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and all of our societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country.
We only have to look at the very recent past. Just since my arrival at the end of October, we have seen repeated incidents of harassment against Ugandan journalists who have been threatened, beaten, arrested, detained, had their credentials cancelled, and equipment confiscated or destroyed. Their crime? Doing their job.
Let me be clear: the challenges to press freedom in Uganda are not unique. On the contrary, press freedom is under attack in countries in every region of the world. The United States is not immune to such challenges. As I noted after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, when the United States speaks out about human rights abuses, we do so not because such abuses do not occur in America. Regrettably, they do.
And when we speak out for press freedom, we do so not because American journalists are free of harassment. For example, last year in Iowa, an area close to where I grew up, a reporter was prosecuted for covering the Black Lives Matters protests prosecuted for doing her job.
Fortunately, a jury took a stand for press freedom and acquitted her earlier this month. So when we – the United States – speak out, we do so precisely because we know how fragile these rights and freedoms are, and because America’s history has taught us that these ideals must be defended if they are to endure.
This is why I applaud HRNJ-Uganda’s (Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda) work. When reality falls short of what is enshrined in Uganda’s constitution — “Every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, including freedom of the press and the media,” — organizations like HRNJ-Uganda have taken on the responsibility to defend these rights.
But the responsibility is not their’s alone. Everyone, each and every one of us, at every level, has the responsibility to protect journalists in the course of carrying out their duties. So while HRNJ-Uganda and its human rights journalists strive to bring us breaking news and thoughtful exposes to create a “non-violent, corruption –free, and human rights observing society,” let us support their mission by standing up for “journalists to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms.”
To the reporters, editors, photographers, and cameramen in the room today: Thank you for what you do everyday, under difficult circumstances, to keep us informed and to bring us closer to realizing our democratic ideal.
To the human rights defenders and civil society practitioners in the room: thank you for standing up both for your colleagues in the media and for freedom of the press, regardless of the consequences for your own safety and security.
Democracy is not for the passive or faint of heart; it requires action, and it requires bravery. I am honored to be in the company of so many brave journalists and their supporters today.