PRESS FREEDOM DAY: WHAT U.S CONSUL GENERAL, JOHN BRAY TOLD THE PRESS
Tuesday, May 3, 2016 is the Press Freedom Day and below is what the U.S Consul General, John Bray, told the press men and women who attended a programme at their Victoria Island, Lagos office to mark it:
Please allow me to stand on the existing protocol. I am delighted to join you to celebrate the 2016 World Press Freedom Day. Let me extend a special thanks to the distinguished panelists who will address important topics associated with access to information and freedom of the press. I also want to thank everyone here for joining us.
Since I arrived in Lagos six months ago, I have been reading and listening to news reports and commentaries written by some of you and your colleagues. It is a pleasure meeting you and I trust there will be many more encounters in the next few years. You are well positioned to give a voice to the voiceless by echoing the concerns of the people to government and the private sector and by shedding light on the actions and inactions of the government and the private sector. You contribute to transparency, accountability, and good governance. Keep up the good work and probe deeper to strengthen your democracy.
Many, many years ago, I studied journalism at Northwestern University. And I believe that today the fundamentals of practicing journalism remain the same but the platform for delivery of news has changed significantly due to ever changing technology. With smart phone devices in our pockets, we can, in real time, access vital information. And this is good for the global village especially when natural or man-made crisis erupt. The international community is quickly sensitized and is able to respond immediately. For example, as you may recall, during the Ebola Virus crisis in Lagos and Port Harcourt, the Nigerian Government and international health organizations responded immediately. And you and your colleagues were keeping citizens informed about prevention and treatment, which contributed to the concerted effort to contain the spread and stop the virus.
Today, you’ll be discussing the freedom of the press, the Freedom of Information Act, and the neutrality of the Internet. These are important topics that your peers across the world contend with. President Obama on May 17, 2010, signed the Freedom of the Press Act named in honor of former Wall Street reporter Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan, four months after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Through this law, the United States Government is reaffirming that freedom of the press is an essential part of a democratic process.
We do not only defend a free press with vigor in the United States but we also monitor other governments how they operate when it comes to a free press. Each year, the State Department gathers information and reports how press freedom is operating as part of our human rights assessment. The report is disseminated to governments, the news media, and civil society. Countries that condone the oppression of the press are exposed in the human rights report, which helps them to take steps to uphold the freedom of the press. In our public and private engagement we defend and reinforce a free press.
For a democracy to thrive there has to be transparency and accountability and a free press and civil society shoulder the burden of holding governments responsible for their action or inaction. In the United States, we 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. The FOIA is supported from the highest level of our government. And government agencies have a responsibility to respond to FOIA requests from the public within a reasonable time frame. In January 2009, in a memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies, President Obama said, “In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.”
Countries that have adopted a FOIA understand its value in a democratic society and the citizens are more informed. I am aware that you and your colleagues have been trying hard to make use of the FOIA that Nigeria adopted in 2011. I encourage you to persist until the law is enforced, including pressing hard for amendment to strengthen the law.
Freedom of information is also closely linked to free and neutral Internet policy, which the United States advocates strongly. The advent of the Internet has changed the way we live, study, and work. The ever changing technology has also produced unimaginable global opportunities. We have seen unprecedented innovation and growth driven by online activities. Education, entrepreneurship, healthcare, and good governance are accelerated by access to the Internet.
Your profession has been profoundly impacted by Social Media. Today, we see every major broadcast and print media amplifying mainstream platforms via social media. Bloggers have carved a niche and have gained respect in contributing significantly to global discourse on major issues.
Overall technological innovation which drives social media has had a significant impact on globalization and democracy. And in general, the principle of Internet neutrality affirms that start-ups have the same opportunity to access the Internet as established businesses. As well as academics and university students have the same level of access to the Internet as teachers and students in the elementary and secondary schools. No one should unfairly slow down access to the Internet to make way for advertisers with more money. This is why we believe the Internet has broadened democratic principles.
On February 26, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission in the United States voted in favor of a strong net neutrality rule to keep the Internet open and free. Internet Neutrality was supported by millions of Americans across the country who worked together to make their voices and wishes heard loud and clear. I urge you to join millions around the world who advocate passionately for Internet neutrality.
In closing, I want to offer a bit of advice. Protect a free press and a neutral Internet in your country. The Nigerian people will rely on you to offer them objective information on major issues that impact the country. Today, your profession is by far better positioned to make significant contributions on behalf of the voiceless compared to the early years of democracy in your country. I wish you a stimulating and successful discourse.