At celebrations last night marking the 60th anniversary of RFE’s broadcasts to Czechoslovakia, an expert panel discussed the role of a free media in promoting democracy and civil society around the world today.
“From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, from the printing press to Facebook, the idea of credible information is on the side of democracy,” said Walter Isaacson, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), introducing the panel. “The question is whether this Arab Spring is the beginning of a monumental shift in the Middle East, or whether it will be short-lived…My view is that it will inevitably lead to freedoms.”
Regarding Pakistan, where two journalists have recently been killed in targeted attacks, the country’s Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani said, “Pakistan is a place with a crazy free-market (media), totally unregulated,” adding that his government was not going to place restrictions on a free press. “Credible journalism will create the reality that will check this confusion. We will have both a free media and a reasonably democratic Pakistan,” Haqqani noted.
Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, pointed out that a pressing challenge to a free media was limited funding. He recalled that during the fall of communism in 1989, the U.S. and Europe were “buoyant” and had strong budgets to support media outlets. Today, the Chinese “have loads of money to spend on this, and we don’t.”
Freedom House Executive Director David Kramer called on policy makers to take an active role in promoting global press freedom. “Passivity is not something we can accept,” he said. “We must stand together as a union of democracies.” The panel also included RFE Senior Correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari and was moderated by Ambassador Kurt Volker, Managing Director of the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations.
Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic Karel Schwarzenberg called RFE “a crucial partner” in the promotion of freedom of speech and of information. Schwarzenberg also announced a new fellowship program to support journalists in RFE’s broadcast areas who are under pressure or in danger in their home countries. The program is to receive core funding from the Czech Foreign Ministry, which will seek additional funds from other donors such as private NGOs and foundations, the U.S. State Department and sources within the European Union.
Citing the “spirit of freedom, the spirit of democracy,” Schwarzenberg added, “We have to show our strength to the founding fathers of RFE as their worthy successors.”
For photos and a transcript of the event, visit the website of RFE/RL.