MR. RYAN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to The Washington Post. I’m Fred Ryan, Publisher, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you and to thank you for joining us this morning for this important discussion on press freedom around the world.
Every year, Reporters Without Borders, the world’s largest non-governmental organization devoted to protecting the rights of journalists, compiles the World Press Freedom Index. And as you know, this report is a massive undertaking, presents exhaustive research into the media environment of 180 different countries.
Among the Index’s many valuable features is its indication of important changes in trends, raising alarm about places where press freedom is in decline and acknowledging areas of improvement. Sadly, as we all know too well, this is a time of growing danger for journalism. As the report indicates, journalists around the world are encountering censorship, harassment, violence every day, just for doing their jobs.
In every region of the world, tyrants are increasing their grip on the press, trying to prevent reporters from holding the powerful to account.This year’s Index highlights a particularly disturbing trend in the Americas, where many countries have seen declines in their press freedom rankings including the United States. At The Washington Post, we take the cause of press freedom very seriously. We are no stranger to assaults on journalists, as we’ve seen in the cases of Jason Rezaian, Austin Tice, and, tragically, Jamal Khashoggi.
For their friends and colleagues here, these attacks have been an agonizing reminder of the dangers that journalists face. Through The Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership Initiative we announced last year, we have made a sustained and long-term commitment to raising awareness of cases like these.
These abuses are unacceptable to everyone who appreciates democratic values and human rights. Free societies rely on the free flow of information, which citizens need to make their most important decisions: how to vote, where to invest, where to travel, whom to trust. To make these decisions we need accurate information, not only about our own countries, but about others around the world. In this way, an attack against a journalist anywhere is very much an assault on liberty everywhere.
Today’s event features several accomplished journalists on the frontlines of the fight for journalistic independence, as well as scholars of the First Amendment, and other experts on press freedom.
We are also fortunate to be joined by people who have a positive story to tell. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest will moderate a discussion with the ambassador from Ethiopia, which is this year’s most improved country, moving up 40 spaces on the list; and the ambassador of Sweden, which consistently ranks high on the Index of Press Freedom. They’ll share some lessons about their country’s success in fostering safer environments for journalists.
In a few minutes, Sabine Dolan of Reporters Without Borders will join Washington Post correspondent Mary Jordan to release the 2019 Index and discuss its findings.
Before we begin, I would like to thank Reporters Without Borders for partnering with us on today's event, as well as the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.
We’ll begin today’s program with a video featuring Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, who was recently arrested by the government of Filipino strongman, Rodrigo Duterte. Maria is currently released on bail and has a timely message to share about the importance of press freedom around the world.
A Plea for Press Freedom
Presentation of the 2019 World Press Freedom Index
MS. JORDAN: Hello. I’m Mary Jordan. I’m a national correspondent for The Washington Post, and spent many, many years running around the world as a foreign correspondent.
I’m delighted this morning to introduce our guest, Sabine Dolan. She’s the Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders, and she is going to talk to us about the 2019 report on World Press Freedom.
And what this Index is--looked at 180 countries around the world and said, “How do they rank when you look at the ability of the press to give information to the public?”
Now, let’s take a look. Right at the top of the list, not a huge surprise: Norway, Finland, Sweden, consistently up there. Why is that, Sabine?
MS. DOLAN: Yeah, these are kind of our index Olympians. They typically hold the top spots of our index. Press freedoms are a longstanding tradition in these countries. It’s reflected in their constitution and also in their shared values, cultural values.
You may remember when President Trump was visiting Helsinki in July 2018, there were billboards from the airport to the city that said, “Welcome, Mr. President, to the land of the free press.” So, that’s kind of--
MS. JORDAN: Wow. More on that later this morning.
Let’s take a look at the bottom of the list: Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, right there at the bottom of 180 countries. Tell us about--
MS. DOLAN: Yeah, well, we’ve nicknamed the “infernal trio.” This is because these three countries have held the bottom spots for many years. They’re essentially information black holes. Turkmenistan, this year, was dropped to the last position. This is really a reflection of a violent crackdown on the few remaining independent journalists who are reporting clandestinely.
And North Korea, which is usually--well, which has often been at the last position--went up by one position this year just to reflectKim Jong-un’s openness, or just a little bit of progress in the openness, through his meetings with foreign leaders.
MS. JORDAN: But you see in these countries that people often have to go to the border to try to get information coming in on airwaves from outside of the borders, complete black hole.
How about the United States? What’s the news this year?
MS. DOLAN: Well, the United States dropped three positions this year and, for the first time, its ranking has been downgraded from “satisfactory” to “problematic,” and this in the country of the First Amendment.
You know, there was obviously the tragic newsroom shooting of four journalists and a member of staff at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. The president’s anti-press--relentless anti-press rhetoric has also contributed to the climate.
MS. JORDAN: So, when you have the President of the United States calling journalists the enemy of the people, do you think you’re seeing that it matters?
MS. DOLAN: I think that when this becomes constant, it’s almost normalized and it percolates to a large segment of the population, and this is how it’s contributed to create this--this climate of fear for journalists, which is the theme of this year’s Index.
MS. JORDAN: The problematic state, I mean, it’s actually quite surprising that it’s--it was even 45 last year. Had it dropped last year from before?
MS. DOLAN: Yes, it had. So, it’s been--it’s been gradually dropping a few--
MS. JORDAN: How would you describe--
MS. DOLAN: It was 43 in 2017, 45 in 2018, and now, this year, it’s 48. Yeah.
MS. JORDAN: And then, what does that mean for the American public?
MS. DOLAN: Well, I think this has an impact on all of us, even in terms of information and access to information, which is the backbone of democracy. So, this has--you know, this is significant.
You know, America was always seen as the beacon of press freedom, not only here but around the world. And this has also had negative repercussions in different countries, especially if you think of the labeling of fake news, which has been used in authoritarian regimes around the world.
From the Philippines, we just saw Maria Ressa speak, to Putin in Russia, and--
MS. JORDAN: I’ve certainly seen that working in other countries in Asia. Journalists would come up and say, “I can’t publish this, but if The Washington Post does, then we can say The Washington Post published these things.”
And I know firsthand and in my bones in how we have really been a beacon, the American press, for other countries. So, it is quite stunning to see that we’re so low in the pack. Let’s go back to the world index, your report. Numbers are kind of stunning. How many journalists were killed last year?
MS. DOLAN: Yeah, well, last year we had 80 journalists who were killed across the world, 348 were detained, and 60 were held hostages.
MS. JORDAN: Whoa. So, right as we speak, there are over 300 journalists in jail for writing something.
MS. DOLAN: Yeah.
MS. JORDAN: It’s a stunning and important figure, and, you know, we’re grateful that all of you showed up today, because it’s--you know, it’s the fourth estate, to keep checks and balances on the other branches of power, as famously said that power corrupts and absolute power is absolutely corrupting.
Let’s look at some of the other headlines. When you look at the world map there, we saw black spaces. And in fact, many of the places here that have the worst records have dictators basically running the show; is that right?
MS. DOLAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
MS. JORDAN: Tell us about the worst places in the world.
MS. DOLAN: Well, you see this--the black zone. The Middle East and North Africa are the most dangerous places to be a journalist. So, they are--they hold the last place in our index. This is due in large part to the wars in the region, but also to authoritarian leaders’ crushing of the Arab Spring a few years ago.
If you look at, you know, outside of these black zones, you have other countries like Venezuela which has also this year been affected by the--you know, by the authoritarian regime of President Maduro. MS. JORDAN: And they dropped in the spot.
Some of the other big movements, let’s talk about those. There were some--Central African Republic dropped 33 slots; Tanzania dropped 25; Nicaragua, 24, down with Daniel Ortega now running the show and being a leader who is cracking down on press. Hungary, also bad news.
MS. DOLAN: Yeah. Yeah, so Nicaragua saw the steepest fall in the Americas, which was the most--the one that had the steepest fall this year. There has been a big crackdown in Nicaragua on independent media. There were a lot of protests where journalists were systematically considered the opposition and were attacked. There were some journalists who were jailed on terrorism charges.
Hungary is another interesting place. Prime Minister [Viktor] Orbán basically controls the media. And it’s reached such an extent that critical media are now having difficulties and are--just can’t access government officials, press conferences, and this in turn has an affect even in their possibility to get funding and advertising. So, this is a bleak landscape for Europe.
MS. JORDAN: So, the advertisers don’t want to be associated with the press, because government--there’s pressure.
MS. DOLAN: For sure.
MS. JORDAN: How about China and Turkey?
MS. DOLAN: Yeah, well, China’s model of Internet control, censorship, and cyber surveillance is gradually being adopted by a lot of the neighboring countries, and this is--whether you’re talking about countries like Vietnam or countries even like Cambodia, Singapore. It is also having an impact as far as Africa. So, this is something to mention in the report--
MS. JORDAN: When you say, “cyber control,” what do you mean? What are they doing?
MS. DOLAN: The regime controls the Internet, controls all the information that is being communicated, access--people’s access to websites are curtailed. There is just--it’s just completely controlled. It’s censored.
MS. JORDAN: It’s just censored. It’s just censored. If there is anything critical--just you don’t get--you don’t get the information.
MS. DOLAN: You don’t--you don’t get it.
The other element about China is that 60 journalists and bloggers are being detained in horrible conditions. So, this is another noteworthy element.
MS. JORDAN: There have been some good news. Tell us about the significant rises.
MS. DOLAN: Well, yeah, you see it--you see it here--we were talking earlier about this black zone in the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia was a very positive and was an exception and a positive case. This is a reflection of the president’s commitment to press freedom.
If you look at Armenia, also in a very bad zone regarding press freedom in our index. Armenia has jumped 19 points. This was--these changes that you see there are often the change of--a reflection of change of government, and this applies to Ethiopia, to--
MS. JORDAN: In fact, often the one leader in charge can change the country.
MS. DOLAN: Exactly, exactly. And this was the case in Ethiopia, which jumped 40 points, for the first time in--
MS. JORDAN: Forty points. Well, it’s nice to have some good news, isn’t it? And we’re going to actually bring on the next panel that’s going to talk further about good news, and then we’re going to come back again with another discussion.
But I just--before we leave the stage, when you look at the index for 2009, what is the state of journalism around the world?
MS. DOLAN: Well, that’s one point. The theme this year is fear, and the state of journalism, press freedom around the world are declining, and this is really a matter of grave concern to us. It’s declining all over the world but also in the traditional press freedom ally, if you want, countries in Europe and countries like here in the United States.
MS. JORDAN: It’s a stunning picture. Thank you very much.
MS. DOLAN: Thank you so much. Thank you.
MS. JORDAN: We’re going to go to some good news about what’s going on in--and that people are doing right. And then, we’re going to go back and talk about the States and some--the way forward. Thanks very much.
Pathways to Press Freedom
MS. PRIEST: Welcome. I’m Dana Priest. I’ve been at The Washington Post now for literally half my life, and I also teach journalism at the University of Maryland, where I have my students profile imprisoned journalists, and it’s allowed me to understand just how bad parts of the world are.
But today we have a mixed group. We're calling them the "Pre-Mueller Report" report. And if you stick around long enough, we might release the report before you leave. Let's see.
I'd like to introduce, to my left, Ambassador Olofsdotter from Sweden, one of the countries with the best rights record.
Very happy to have His Excellency, Ambassador Fitsum from Ethiopia here, one of the countries that have really made the most improvement in the last year or two.
And then Jameel Jaffer, who's probably familiar to most of you here. He's the Executive Director of the new Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and a longtime with the ACLU.
So, welcome everybody.
MR. JAFFER: Thank you.
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Thank you.
MR. FITSUM: Thank you.
MS. PRIEST: I wanted to start with Ambassador Fitsum. Ethiopia for the first time in almost 15 years has no prisoners--has no journalists in prison. It’s unblocked most of its previously blocked sites, which is hundreds. And it is allowing now bloggers and nongovernmental journalists to report. So it is really, aside from Tunisia, probably the brightest light in the world right now. So I want to applaud you for that.
MR. FITSUM: Thank you.
MS. PRIEST: We were speaking on the phone about the situation there, and he was talking about capacity-building being something that is in need right now. Can you talk please a little bit more about that?
MR. FITSUM: Thank you so much. First of all, I’m delighted to be here. This is my third week as ambassador. So I was privileged to be chief of staff of this reformist prime minister. I’ve seen--I’m a witness what he’s been doing so since he came to power in April 2018. It took him just 100 days to reverse some of the challenges, human rights issues, press freedom that we were criticized for so long by human rights watchdogs and different international media. So I think he’s now taking us in the right direction. He’s been championing everything through due process of law.
And now we had a serious problem in terms of accommodating disagreement, exercising democracy. So it's part of the whole democratic process that we need capacity building, and also freedom of press is the main one to deepen our democracy. Journalists were not free in many ways, and we need capacity-building in terms of how to use the press responsibly, at the same time how to balance.
And also, the people at large were not aware of how to understand everything comes out from media. They get easily confused. In countries where you have stable democracy, you judge what isn't it. You cross reference, you take second opinion. But that's not the case in Ethiopia.
So I think it relates to the experience where I think [unclear 00:05:28--and it takes time to come down to the community, society. Education is also very important, and also press freedom plays most of the role [? 00:05:42. So we need capacity-building in many areas in delivering the news and creating different platforms. Unless we are exposed to a different environment, unless we get a chance to debate, there is no any other shortcut to get to what is to be. So there are many areas that we need in capac--
MS. PRIEST: So I noticed that Facebook is the largest social media platform, and we know that that has caused a lot of trouble in a lot of other countries where it was newly introduced. Have you had discussions with them about trying to damp down hate speech or disinformation, which is unfortunately a problem not just in Ethiopia but everywhere now?
MR. FITSUM: Yes, I think social media has created a wonderful platform for people like Ethiopia to penetrate the majority of people, because it’s an easy infrastructure, medium of transforming--I mean passing information. As connectivity is growing, that is highly welcomed.
But the negative side of social media, like Facebook, Twitter, and others, is there are faceless people who can say anything they want, hate speeches that incite violences, and in some cases they take it for granted and create some conflicts, even in some cases, and that creates some panic which may grow at alarming rates [? 00:07:29].
So I don't think the Western countries have also money to deal with this. I think it's a challenge for everyone. But the way the Western countries observe [unclear 00:07:46] and--countries like Ethiopia is totally different. So, yes, it's important to regulate, but how?
And hate speech laws are seen as silencing dissent. We had some challenges in the past, like anti-terrorism law, societies and charity law, which are now totally repealed and replaced by other more just laws. So it's under discussion, whether we have to have a hate speech law or not, what is the best practice, and how can we narrowly enact it so that it doesn't silence dissent, and again, discourage free press. We need support on this as well. And we don't want to get back to where we were. We are enjoying what we have, so we want to continue to deepen our democracy.
MS. PRIEST: Well, luckily, we have the leader in the world here on how do you deal with--
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: I think we can really help you. We’ve been at it for 250 years.
MS. PRIEST: Well, we got this together for a reason.
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Yes, no, but I think that is one of the reasons why we are ranked so highly, because it has been part of our culture, with access to information from the public. And we also have a whistleblower function where government officials, like myself, cannot get persecuted if we give information to media. That is not, of course, under national security, but for everything else.
So this, of course. builds trust in society, where we always scrutinize our public officials. And this has also led to that we are one of the least corrupt countries in the world, and also one of the most innovative countries in the world. So it goes together, both democracy and economy, and how a country can prosper if you have the proper institutions. If you are really going the way where you are going, this will help you in so many ways, both democracy and economically.
But of course, we are challenged as well. And we have put in large efforts to educate our public, new program for schools, how do we teach kids to be media literate, and how to--
MS. PRIEST: Is that a mandatory part of the curriculum?
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Yes, we only have public schools with the same curriculum, basically. So we really need to work on it constantly because now we have a new environment given social media. And we need to train our young kids to be aware what is real news and what is not real news, and how do you tackle--learn, because it is very difficult, even for adults. And of course, kids now, they are so tech savvy, they know much more than we do, but this is something that we constantly need to work on. And you, who have probably jumped straight into social media and new technology, for you it’s maybe even more important to do that.
MR. FITSUM: Yes.
MS. PRIEST: So, do you regulate social media, or do you rely on media literacy among the population?
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Yes, of course we have some--we have legislation, but that is the same legislation for old media and new media, so to speak. So that hasn’t changed. It’s the technology that’s different, but not the contents. So the legislation doesn’t look at technology.
MS. PRIEST: Well, there’s been discussions here and elsewhere about the rules regulating the media. We basically have the First Amendment. That’s our regulator.
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Yes, yes.
MS. PRIEST: But Scandinavia, all three countries, I believe, have a media regulator of some sort. Can you just broadly--
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Yes, there is an agency, of course, that if you feel that you have been mis-portrayed, you can, how do you say, go to that agency, and then the journalist can also be or the media outlet can be, how do you say, judged or fined if it’s considered that they have been slanting or not portraying the facts correctly.MS. PRIEST: And is that a government panel?
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: It is in sort of a way. It’s of course funded through the governmental system, but then it’s independent like all our judicial [unclear 00:12:14].
MS. PRIEST: That would be a scary thought here, I think. So you must do it in some way that we need to study. It works there.
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Yes, it does, it does.
MS. PRIEST: Okay.
Finally, you have a program called "Troll Hunter."
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Yes.
MS. PRIEST: Where--yes, and it’s like the program we had, find a predator, it’s find a troll. And the person figures this out and then they go with a camera and confront them. And so troll hunting is something that you’ve been doing for a while?
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: No, it’s fairly new, actually. But I think it’s important that we can show this through public media, who they are and how they operate. And this is of course part of learning about the system. What is a troll? Where does it come from? Is it people in our country? Is it people in other countries? Why do they do it? So that we have a bigger understanding of it. So of course, it’s good to have the troll-hunting program so you can actually learn about it, because I think for most of us it’s quite hard to understand how it operates.
MS. PRIEST: Yes, okay, great.
And, Jameel, we have the Swedish ambassador here, want to talk about Julian Assange, who overlaps in both these areas. Possible extradition back to Sweden. We’ll talk about that in a minute. But what is your take on the arrest, the indictment, and how it could play out here in the United States vis-à-vis its implications for press freedom here.
MR. JAFFER: Right. Well, I guess I should start by saying that the indictment is for a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is a hacking statute. And there’s, in my view, no argument here that the hacking was constitutionally protected, and so the charges themselves, again, in my view, don’t raise constitutional concerns.
MS. PRIEST: Well, okay. Why? Why would you--
MR. JAFFER: The indictment, though, right? The indictment is much broader than the charges. The indictment lists as the means and manner of the conspiracy many things that legitimate journalists engage in every day, so protecting the identity of a source, or communicating securely with a source. Those kinds of things are presented as evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
And in fact, the indictment is quite short. But if you read it, you'll see that 90 percent of it is about things that legitimate journalists do every day. So much attention is given to those things, that it's very hard for a reader not to come away with the impression that the Justice Department believes that those things are problematic.
And so I guess I'm sort of conflicted about the charges. I don't find the charges themselves problematic, but the indictment is quite scary, and I think that any journalist who reads that indictment, especially investigative journalists who work on national security issues, there's no way to do that kind of journalism without doing the very things that the Justice Department is describing as part of a criminal conspiracy.
And then we see that indictment against a background in which the administration, the Trump administration here, has stepped up leak investigations, has stigmatized--that’s too weak a word but--has stigmatized whistleblowers, has made clear that the administration will go after journalists who publish classified information, or has suggested that the administration will go after journalists who publish classified information. So especially against that background, I think this indictment is very worrying.
MS. PRIEST: So one step backward. You say it is constitutionally protected, which means that you would put Assange in the category of a journalist or a publisher? Could you just explain?
MR. JAFFER: No, I don’t actually think that you need to believe that Julian Assange is a journalist to be worried about this indictment. You know, the Supreme Court here has never distinguished journalists from everybody else in terms of the protection that people get under the First Amendment. The protections are the same.
And so, there's really no legal relevance to this question of whether Julian Assange is a journalist or not. I'm not saying that's not a legitimate topic of debate, but it doesn't have any legal relevance. And the indictment doesn't turn on the fact that Julian Assange is not a journalist. The indictment is, again, describes all these things that Julian Assange is alleged to have done. And almost all of those things--not all of them--but almost all of those things are things that legitimate journalists do every day.
MS. PRIEST: Okay. I wanted to talk to you about another case, the Khashoggi case. And we talked back in the back a little bit about the responsibility to warn, and that brings in possible U.S.--well, you tell them what that is and what you--
MR. JAFFER: Sure. So, as all of us unfortunately know, Jamal Khashoggi was a U.S. resident, a Saudi national, a Washington Post journalist who was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul last year. And we might have expected the United States to call out this act as the criminal act that it was. That’s not what happened. In fact, the Trump administration has been very enthusiastic about participating in what looks like a coverup of the killing.
One thread in the story that I think hasn't gotten quite enough attention has to do with the duty to warn, which is a duty that U.S. intelligence agencies have recognized. If they intercept or acquire evidence that there's a threat to somebody's life or liberty in the course of surveillance--so they're surveilling--they're engaged in nationals security surveillance and they run across evidence that somebody, a journalist, for example, is under a threat to his or her life or liberty, then they have an obligation to alert that journalist to the threat.
And we, with the Knight Institute and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have been litigating for the release of records relating to the duty to warn, because we want to know what did U.S. intelligence agencies know before the killing about the threat to Khashoggi, and if they did know something about the threat to his life and liberty, what did they do about it?
Thus far, the intelligence agencies have for the most part stonewalled that request. They have provided what's called a Glomar response, which means that they refuse to confirm or deny even the existence of records responsive to the request.
But I find that very troubling. I think that the United States on this kind of issue should be at the opposite end of the pole of where we are. We should be calling for accountability. We should be demanding a credible investigation, a transparent investigation. And instead, the most senior American officials are effectively participating in the coverup.
MS. PRIEST: Okay. Since we mentioned Julian Assange, is there an update on whether Sweden is considering--
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: The prosecutor’s agency is looking into the case again to see if there is a case or not for asking for his extradition from the United Kingdom. And the accusation is rape. It’s a sexual crime.
MS. PRIEST: Right. And so they’re reopening the case to look at it, or the judge is--
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Yes, they’re looking into it again to see. It’s kind of a pre-study to a case study. So I guess we will know in a couple weeks.
MS. PRIEST: Okay.
I guess I wanted to end again with Ambassador Fitsum and ask about whether the environment in the United States, especially at the top vis-à-vis press freedom and embracing it as an important part of democracy, does that resonate in any way positive or negative in Ethiopia?
MR. FITSUM: I think you have a strong institution which helps you to balance whatever administration comes in. And we are looking to how we can have such a strong institution so that whoever comes won’t easily manipulate. So that’s how I see it.
MS. PRIEST: Okay. Well, thank you all for being here and thank you for coming. And we will have our next panel will be following us in just a minute. So we decided not to release the Mueller Report, and you’ll just have to wait, but stay in your chairs.
MS. OLOFSDOTTER: Thank you so much.
Perspectives on Freedom of the Press Around the Globe
MS. JORDAN: I’m back again. I’m a national correspondent for The Washington Post, and delighted to introduce our guests. We have Jessikka Aro, award-winning Finnish investigative reporter. She works for the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and she is going to tell you what she personally has had to endure to write about Russia’s propaganda machine.
We also have Chouchou Namegabe, from--legendary radio correspondent in the Congo. For 20 years she has been talking about something that was once unmentionable: rape as a weapon of war. She’s been doing that since 1998 against all kinds of odds and death threats.
Jonathan Karl could not be here this morning because of an unexpectedly busy morning news cycle, but we are really delighted to have Bill Plante here. Bill is well-known, a thoughtful person who has actually been writing about Washington politics since Nixon’s campaign and has a great perspective. In fact, I want to start with Bill.
What do you make of where the U.S. is and its drop in the Index?
MR. PLANTE: Well, previous presidents have always tried to steer news coverage. They’ve tried to limit press access. Now we have a president who actually threatens press freedom. So we’re in a very dangerous place. And I’m not at all surprised, given his influence, that the U.S. dropped in the Index this year.
MS. JORDAN: Did you see this coming? I mean, was it inevitable? I mean, was it really changed by who is in the White House? Or do you see something from having looked for decades, covering politics in the United States?
MR. PLANTE: Whether you blame it on this president depends, I suppose, on your own political inclinations. But the fact is that what he has done is to legitimatize worldwide this business of beating up on the press and threatening. Here is the president who actively said it’s, quote, “frankly disgusting” the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. Excuse me? We do have the First Amendment here of which he is either unaware or uncaring?
MS. JORDAN: Jessikka, you’re based in Helsinki. Is that right?
MS. ARO: Yes.
MS. JORDAN: And you have done heroic work talking about what’s going on in Russia. Can you just give us--tell us what happened to you when you started writing these critical stories from Russia. What happened?
MS. ARO: Definitely. Thank you for the good feedback. It really keeps me going.
So in 2014, I started to investigate the then-newest phenomenon of Russian information warfare, the social media propaganda trolls spreading Putin's messages, also internationally. So I wanted to find out specifically: How does digital disinformation by Putin's regime influence and impact actual real people's ideas, attitudes, and even behavior? So that was my core interest.
And as soon as I started to investigate that, I was made a smearing target, first in Russian fake news media. It spread almost at 10 different sites saying that I’m not a journalist at all. Instead I’m some kind of famous assistant of NATO and American Baltic security services. So they framed me as some kind of foreign agent.
MS. JORDAN: So let’s go back. This is 2014, before the U.S. election, that you were on this, right?
MS. ARO: Yeah.
MS. JORDAN: And so to discredit you, they were saying you’re an agent of the United States.
MS. ARO: Yeah, basically.
MS. JORDAN: Because there’s nothing worse to be said, is that the idea that you were being sent [unclear 00:04:02].
MS. ARO: Yeah.
MS. JORDAN: But beyond that, so how did it affect you? How did it affect you? It was even worse. I mean, they called you every name in the book, demeaned you.
MS. ARO: Yeah.
MS. JORDAN: Did it make it hard to work, to keep going?
MS. ARO: Of course. That was their whole point as they continued their, basically, criminal smearing campaign. For example, today I believe they have made around 250 fake news stories about me, only at one pro-Kremlin, pro-racist, pro-neo Nazi fake news site in Finnish, and then there are all the other fake news. And they claim that I’m criminal, a drug dealer, mentally disabled, and made up all this troll ordeal. So, what that causes is that it agitates real people into hating me and real people into sending death threats to me.
For example, my former friends turned into enemies and start to threaten me. Someone who even knows me from the history, they started to hate me as well. So they really made it difficult.
MS. JORDAN: So this is where it gets scary, because this is where it works, right? You say something often enough, and then people think it’s true. And this is kind of the sad fact of why this Index is so important, that we kind of take a look, take a breath, and try to figure out where we go from here.
I want to talk to Chouchou. What an amazing story you have to tell. When you went on the radio graphically and explaining something that people were not supposed to--it was taboo to talk about this, that women were getting raped by militias--what happened to you?
MS. NAMEGABE: Thank you very much.
It really wasn’t easy, and I remember at that time, 1998--1996 first, after the breaking down of the--the outbreak of the first war, nobody talked about rape and sexual violence. The second war, it was in 1998. There was silence.
And, in 1999, some women started denouncing the rape and sexual violence. And I remember, when we wanted to talk about it in the media, in the radio, we didn't even have a word to talk about it. We tried--
MS. JORDAN: Because it was so socially taboo to say?
MS. NAMEGABE: Yes, we tried to look in our local languages, like Swahili from Congo, Mashie, local languages,Kerekka/Kilenga [phonetic 00:06:39], but there was explanations of the phenomenon. So we had to borrow a word from Swahili, from Tanzania. And this is “ubakaji” and it [unclear 00:06:52] told to people about ubakaji.
And I remember the first time we broadcasted a testimony from a woman who was raped. It was a shock in the community. People called us and said how are you talking about sex on the radio. I said it's not a problem of sex. It's really a big problem of community, because a woman explains how she was raped, how after the rape she got tortured. They put stone, branches in her vagina. She explained everything. And people were shocked. They said--
MS. JORDAN: And, of course, by writing about the problem, you bring eyes on the problem. And the world came to realize that this wasn’t just in your country but in many countries. So the effect is clear.
MS. NAMEGABE: Yes.
MS. JORDAN: But what happened to you personally? Since we’re talking about the courage it takes these days to write things, what did you endure?
MS. NAMEGABE: Yes, I quickly realized that our microphone was a weapon also to fight that phenomenon. And really, at that time, we started giving our microphone to women to tell their stories. Because when the rebels were attacking the village, they called it a silent war, men’s rape. And quickly my colleagues, we turned our microphone to women. We became the loudspeaker of these women, and we denounced it--
MS. JORDAN: Did you have the same experience as Jessikka, that some of your friends said why are you doing that?
MS. NAMEGABE: Yes. So sometimes it was crazy. What are you talking about? Really the shame. It’s a shame even for women. You have highlighted the problem of women. You should not talk about it. We said, no, we have--to talk about it is to act.
So we led a campaign called the Challenging Silence: Women Journalists Against Rape and Sexual Violence. And we went even to the ICC, International Criminal Court, and, yeah, we had such opportunities to testify and to bring the spotlight on the problem. And women were really sensitized. Even the communities, the Congolese community were rejecting the survivors. They were rejected by their family. They were stigmatized. But we have to sensitize, to train even the family to accept them.
MS. JORDAN: To accept it.
I want to ask you and then come back to Bill. For 15 years, I was a correspondent around the world, and many times I felt very proud that other countries would say, “Oh, you’re from The Washington Post. You can do anything. You have such freedom.” And they were kind of, “Gosh, I wish I could work there.”
These days, as we drop into the problematic area for press freedom, have you noticed in the last years that from other countries looking at the States, they see a problem here, Jessikka?
MS. ARO: We are seeing a problem that is coming from your presidential leadership against the press at the moment. But we are also seeing that the journalism that you guys are doing is really brave and is really expert. And you still show a lot of example to the rest of the world. So keep on doing what you’re doing.
MS. JORDAN: Nice. Thank you.
And, Bill--Reagan, I mean, since Reagan you have actually been in the White House. And where do you see the country going now, as we move to 2020 campaign?
MR. PLANTE: It’s one thing to try to steer news coverage by placing things out there, by leaking certain stories, by trying to avoid coverage of other things. It’s entirely another to threaten reporters and to say that news coverage shouldn’t be allowed.
So the only weapon we have is truth. The problem is that in today's media environment, with social media, we can be overwhelmed. So we have to come out there with more effort than ever to get the truth out.
And I think part of the way to do that is for reporters to avoid expressing their own opinions on social media. I think that's a mistake, because it then doesn't differentiate reporters from people who are giving opinion.
MS. JORDAN: Right, it feeds right into it.
Anything else that reporters should be doing to try to move up on this index? What do we need to do ourselves? I mean, I need to know what other people need to do, but we have control about what we should be doing.
MR. PLANTE: Part of it is simply making sure that the United States government doesn’t move to suppress press freedom in any way. There is a danger lurking out there in today’s world, which we’ve discussed at length here. We don’t know what they would do if they could, but this president always suggests that it would be a good idea if we didn’t have so much, quote, “fake news,” most of which is not fake.
MS. JORDAN: Yes.
And to pick well, there's, like, so much noise, so much going on out there. I think one of the things that a lot of journalists talk about is to keep your eye on the ball on the big things, because people are overwhelmed by the amount of information.
Jessikka, some very disturbing thing happened to you for your efforts. Russia is one of the most dangerous places to work. People get killed. They're in jail. You were early on this story. You won lots of awards, including you picked up the phone and heard that you had won one from the State Department, which was a fairly big deal. And then you were told, oops.
What happened there? The actual State Department pulled her award and some people think it may have had to do with the fact that you were critical of Donald Trump. What do you think?
MS. ARO: Yeah, well, I still feel like a winner because I had the award for a while before it was canceled from me without any official documentation or explanation. And it was--
MS. JORDAN: What did they say? Oops?
MS. ARO: They just said that it’s canceled.
MS. JORDAN: Wow.
MS. ARO: And then I read from the Foreign Policy that anonymous officials from the State Department told that it was due to my Trump-critical tweets. But then these Democrats at the Senate oversighting the State Department, Committee on Foreign Relations, they started to look into it and they made their own investigation, and they found out that indeed, what the State Department spokesperson said publicly, and he said that it was a mistake and that the award was never given to me in the first place, that that certainly wasn’t based on documentation--
MS. JORDAN: And it was fairly minor things that you were saying also about trolling. I mean, she basically said he was trolling.
Bill, you have seen leaders. I mean, they’ve been criticized. You know, criticizing leaders is not something that’s new. What’s new is that if you criticize some people, they immediately say that--they demean you, they discredit you, they say it’s just not true.
MR. PLANTE: In Jessikka’s case, the State Department and the administration seem to be trying to go out of their way to say this really didn’t happen. In other words, they are basically denying that there was any political influence.
Well, look. I covered White Houses for 30 years, and I never saw a decision that didn't have at least some consideration of politics when it was made. And certainly this reeks of that.
MS. JORDAN: Right. But what is at the heart of this is what we’re seeing in many countries, is when a leader is criticized, they go after the journalist. And in our country, we have a long history. I mean, think of all the names that we’ve called different presidents over time. Why is it so different now?
MR. PLANTE: Richard Nixon had an enemies’ list, and on that list there were a number of journalists, as well as other members of the opposition party. But he didn’t do anything to restrict their ability to work. That is how times have changed.
MS. JORDAN: Right. Well, I mean, it’s the tension between the four states, the four pillars--right?--the White House, the Judiciary, Congress, and the Press--and what is this whole day, this whole morning is about is when you diminish the power of one, then the power of the others rise. And it’s all about checks and balances. And it’s a bit scary here.
Chouchou, Congo: 117. Not a good spot. So even now, it's difficult there. What are the challenges for journalists in the Congo?
MS. NAMEGABE: The daily work of a journalist is really a challenge. Threats on journalists, arrests, it’s like a daily norm. Journalists are arrested for defamation, for insults, like you said when you criticize an authority, it’s an insult. And journalists are jailed for that. Journalists are jailed for leading an investigation on sensitive matters. Like female journalists, when we make investigation about rape and sexual violence used as a weapon of war, these are sensitive matters. So we received threats to be killed, to be kidnapped, to be raped also.
And really, I remember even in 2009, my town, Bukavu, was called a dangerous place to live as a journalist--
MS. JORDAN: And it’s so interesting when you look at the index that depending on the leader in the certain Africa country, some are zooming up and some are going down.
MS. NAMEGABE: Yes.
MS. JORDAN: It really depends.
Jessikka, you were out early. You saw how social media was key into this, right? It's key into spreading the word, spreading bad, you know, disinformation. Where do you see the state of the world press going now, and what should be done?
MS. ARO: Well, as journalists, we need to do investigations. We can cover these topics with international colleagues. We can form networks to cover this. Because for example, the Russian trolls, they are influencing all over the place, not just in Finland or in Ukraine, but also in Catalonia. They are fueling conflicts also in France. And of course, the presidential elections. They helped Trump to get elected. So there should be really ways to forms some journalistic coalitions to fight this and to cover these and make big stories.
MR. PLANTE: I think it’s also important that we encourage the efforts going forward of the social media companies, of Facebook, Google, and others to police what is on their networks. This is not going to be a --then you hear cries of censorship right away, but to remove what is patently false and which incites violence is not necessarily wrong. And I think those efforts, which are supposedly underway, need to be encouraged.
But basically, all we have is the truth, and we have to keep working as hard as we can to get it out there.
MS. JORDAN: All we have is the truth. I mean, this is what this whole day has been about. We started this morning talking about the battle to get the truth, the facts, information to people so that they can make right decisions. And I think you showing up this morning, the people that are watching online, we’re very grateful to that. And I think that, along with social media companies, along with people being aware, along with journalists holding themselves to the highest standard and the courage that we’ve seen that you’ve taken, and others--you know, I’m always optimistic. But we are really grateful.
Thank you so much.