World Press Freedom Day Reception

Remarks of Ambassador Jess Baily

Good evening, and thank you all for coming to this beautiful and historic gallery tonight to help us mark World Press Freedom Day, which falls officially on May 3.

It’s good to be with representatives of Macedonia’s media.  As a press officer for much of my career, I feel I’m in my element here.  I’ve worked with journalists, editors, and publishers over many years, and I have great respect for what you do.  It’s not easy telling a complex story in 500 words, with one photo, or in a 90 second report.

On World Press Freedom Day we celebrate the power of a free media.  We pay tribute to media professionals who have dedicated themselves to the principles of free speech, and in some cases have sacrificed their safety and even their lives to do their jobs in service to the public.

Freedom of the press has been an essential part of American democracy since the founding of our republic, and is enshrined in the first amendment of our Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, spoke loudly and clearly about the value of a free media, in 1787 going so far as to write, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Jefferson’s conviction that media must remain independent from outside influence continues to resonate, and underscores a challenge faced today by all functioning democracies – which is how to preserve that freedom.

So how can we do this?

  • To preserve press freedom, journalists need the space and resources to pursue and report on stories – and especially on those that might otherwise remain hidden.
  • To preserve press freedom, journalists must maintain high professional standards, reporting with integrity, professionalism, and fairness.
  • And equally important, to preserve press freedom, journalists must be courageous and fight to protect their independence, and work together respecting differences.

None of this is easy for you in the media.  But it is worth the effort if you believe in the power of the press to keep the people informed – as without an informed citizenry, a democracy cannot stand.

And to be fair, none of this is easy for the institutions in power either.  I represent the United States government, and it should come as no surprise that people in my government have not always been happy with stories the media have reported.  But keeping government officials happy is not the goal; and I think another quote from Thomas Jefferson is also useful here.

Two decades after he wrote about preferring newspapers without government to government without newspapers, Jefferson was a changed man.

He was now a president who had endured an onslaught of media criticism, and had a new perspective on the role of the media. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” he wrote. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

I can sympathize with Jefferson’s frustration.  At the same time, his words crystallize another challenge for preserving press freedom – and that is the need for people and institutions to tolerate different views and unpleasant truths.

  • To preserve press freedom, society must welcome critical voices.
  • To preserve press freedom, politicians and officials must develop thick skins, take criticism on board, offer a different view as appropriate … but not use the legal systems or resources of the state to squelch free expression.
  • And to preserve press freedom, owners and publishers need to provide space for different perspectives and consumers must want to hear them.

On World Press Freedom Day, our purpose is honor the work you and colleagues around the world do.  Your profession is not easy, but it is necessary.  There are many challenges to media freedom here in Macedonia – you know them far better than I; and many reports have described them.

So I will close instead by emphasizing that the United States, and our embassy, wants to be your partner, by interacting honestly and professionally as you pursue stories, and by working with you to help strengthen protections, expand the space for debate and to advance press freedom.

I hope you enjoy the evening.  Thank you.