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VOA Director Says Free Press Key in Crafting, Preserving Democratic Societies

VOA Director Amanda Bennett (center) at an awards ceremony.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett (center) at an awards ceremony.

World Press Freedom Day is this year jointly organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the African Union Commission and the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. According to the United Nations, the main event is taking place in Addis Ababa at the African Union Headquarters. This year's theme “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” discusses current challenges faced by media in elections, along with the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes. World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO's General Conference. Since then, May 3, the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day. The United Nations says this is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. VOA’s Salem Solomon Fekadu speaks with Amanda Bennett, VOA director on press freedom.

SS: All right, thank you so much for a sit-down interview and for making time today to speak to us about press freedom. To get started, I would like to get your perspective on why press freedom matters?

AB: Well, you know, here in the United States, we say that there's it's not an accident that freedom of the press is the First Amendment of the Constitution, because unless you have free press, which means something that can independently bring information to people, you can't have a democratic society. And you can see around the world when governments are in trouble or doing something that the people wouldn't like when there's takeovers, coups, elections that are contested, that's when they close down the press. Why is it? It's because they realize that information is power. And if the people get too much power, they'll be able to balance out the power of the leaders. And that's why they closed down the presses to keep the power for themselves.

SS: And there's a lot of battles over truth right now, globally speaking. And it seems like it's on a daily basis. And I think most people would agree that the free press and following the tried and true journalistic principles is very important, because of what you just explained. But where does the Voice of America stand in this?

AB: So for 75 years, the Voice of America has had is its mission to bring objective, verifiable news and information to countries that don't have any other way to get it. So we broadcast into some of the most closed countries in the world. You know, it's just shocking to realize that only about 13 percent of the countries in the world even the people in the world live in countries where they have a free press. So that's the audience we serve. And we think it's important that people have access to information they can believe.

SS: And from your work, and you've been here for a while, what are the challenges that you hear from our journalists?

AB: So the people that are working in these countries where there is no free press, are facing exactly the same kind of conditions that the people in the domestic markets are having. So they're having to deal with the fact that, people try and shut them down, people try and take their equipment, they get beaten up, they, you know, we don't have anybody to think thank goodness, we don't have anybody in prison right now. But they face the possibility of being detained. So they're facing the same kinds of threats that the local journalists are. And we depend completely on these really courageous journalists in the countries we cover.

SS: And you've been on the ground in Africa, you've been to Nigeria, you've seen how our reporters on the ground operate. You've been to the Central African Republic, what are the challenges that reporters tell you that that comes in between what they do on a daily basis?

VOA Director Amanda Bennett and VOA Reporter Salem Solomon Discuss Press Freedom
VOA Director Amanda Bennett and VOA Reporter Salem Solomon Discuss Press Freedom

AB: So I was able to meet with groups of journalists in Uganda, where they are, you know, a lot of them had been beaten up in the course of doing their work, I was able to meet journalists from all over Africa, various groups that we've put together. And they talked about the problems of working inside a media system, where so much of the broadcast capability is owned by somebody with the agenda. So they were saying, you know, we can be the best journalists in the world, we can report the best story in the world, but we can't get anybody to run it because the person that owns the station, won't let it go on. So that was a huge problem. And another problem is that journalists are paid so badly in Africa that, you know, you try and get away from the brown envelope culture because you know, that is really completely off-limits for journalists. But they were saying, like, we don't get paid enough to live on. So it's a real struggle for them.

SS: You also met a lot of women during the course of your travel on the continent, what do they tell you? What kind of experiences today share with you that really struck you, that really resonated with you?

AB: You know, what really resonated with me as to talking about talking to these journalists reminded me a lot of the situation that my friends and I faced, actually, about 40 years ago, it was very similar, where there were so few women, the expectations were that you couldn't do it, there was really a big resistance to having you out there. And so they were talking about how you overcome that. And it made me remember about, you know, my own past when, when it was a really very unusual thing to have a woman journalist, but at the same time, a lot of the struggles that they were having felt very contemporary, they were asking, like, you know, what do you do about your children? You know, how do you explain it to them? What about the family, they expect you to cook dinner, you know, so they have a lot very contemporary experiences as well. And I was I was really thrilled to be talking to because you could see they were thinking through about how they could have a good career.

SS: And other, aside from censorship, and, you know, monetary challenges, also governments try to stifle information, which is really true to our mission. So when there are efforts to stifle information, how does VOA get around to make sure that we get balanced and and and, you know, information out to our target audience?

AB: Well, that's one of the things when you're talking about the journalistic standards, one of the journalistic standards is to try and figure out how you can verify things and how you can talk to different sides of the argument. So, if one side isn't talking to you, you can often find out things from the other side, and you can balance it out like that. And then there's also being able to verify things, factually, that's a really important thing that we try and do. And that's, I think, an advantage we have with having a big operation here back in the United States because the journalists here can help the journalists on the ground get the additional information and factual verification.

SS: So it's an advantage to be here. One of the example that I really speaking of all sides, that really struck my attention when we're working on Burundi. Burundi is a perfect example where the government has shut down the BBC and our broadcast. And we reached out the government to ask, what is the reason and they forbade him, the presidential advisor said, ‘because of fake news’, it was very interesting to me to hear from a foreign government to say that we're that, you know, that's why they're doing it. What's your take on those kinds of excuses, I would say, to stifle information?

AB: I think that the use of the term fake news is really unfortunate, because you as a journalist know, I know that if it's fake, it's not news. And to use a phrase like that, that's really an empty phrase, to shut down legitimate newsgathering operations, wherever they occur in the world. That's really a tragedy. And you know, with Burundi, we got shut down. And there were various excuses given to us to BBC, that honestly really didn't, didn't hold water, they weren't, didn't seem to be really true, it was that they wanted us out. So they just made up these excuses. So that's the kind of thing you see happening. They don't want to say what their real reason is.

SS: So it's becoming really harder and harder, especially in authoritarian governments, where either they deliberately suppress information and they or they banned completely, but it's harder for them also, to do that, because people can share videos on social media, it's more accessible now. I think the more the problematic thing right now is the effort to disinform, meaning, you know, I don't want to say fake news, quote, unquote. But there's that effort. And so what are we doing to at least, you know, have we're an effort to have people filter information, what are we doing from VOA?

AB: You see, I think it's really important when you're facing a climate where people are from various countries are trying to make sure that you get caught off balance that you don't believe that there's the truth, you don't believe things you, you get confused about whether even is the truth. And we try and make sure that everything we do is verifiable. And so I think that gives audiences a way to at least know that if they reach a trusted news source, that they can have an idea that what we are broadcasting is as close to the truth as you could possibly get. So I think we've I feel like we're kind of a little anchor in the storm, and that trusted news organizations are increasingly going to be that kind of an anchor when all this other stuff is floating around.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett Shares on Importance of Press Freedom
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SS: So a place where people could come to confirm. So do you see, I mean, we talked about the challenges, but what other opportunities, I feel like this is an opportunity for people to come and say, yes, VOA a said VOA said this so it must be true kind of confirmation, are there any other opportunities for us to look into to fill this gap that is new, and unfortunately, in Africa, really rampant?

AB: Well, and you also see the opportunities lie in the fact that people do actually want news they can believe. I mean, I think some of the authoritarian governments try and tell us that, that the, you know, this information is just going to confuse everybody. But you do see that when something terrible is happening, let's say, let's say, you know, inside of Iran, we can watch our traffic going up people are, even though it's against the law for them to see us, they find ways to get to us, when you see when their area really important things, let's say what's happening in Venezuela, you can actually see our traffic in China, go up where people want to try and find things. So even in places where the news is the most controlled, you see that people's behavior, particularly digital behavior, which makes it a little bit easier to get to it. They're trying to find news that they can believe in, which I think is a really hopeful, hopeful sign.

SS: ...they'll find a way to get the information. Another angle that I really want to touch from your personal experience, you've worked in China. What was it like because there's an effort of China and foreign governments and China and other governments to come in and have a soft power footprint on our continent. I'd like to hear your perspective on your personal experience working in China.

AB: Well, I was in China a very long time ago. So I got to see sort of an original way that China operated. And the news wasn't really news, what it was, was the daily feed of what the government wanted you to think about that day, and there was no pretense about it, it was, you know, here's what the important messages from this Chinese Communist Party and that you should be thinking about. And so the fact that it was really, really tailored to what they wanted you to believe, had really very little to do with actually the reality on the ground. I remember doing a story where, I, back then, I kind of like fact-checked some stories that were in the People's Daily. And it was so funny because there weren't, there were no facts at all. You went and looked at each one of them and tried to find them. And you could never find anything. It was all storytelling.

SS: Were there any specific angles that they didn't want a maybe the Communist Party didn't want to hear? Sometimes, you know, these authoritarian government or certain party, there are certain stories that they don't want reporters to write about. Were there any difficulties like that?

AB: Well, those things changed from time to time, depending on what was going on. You know, a more modern example I can show shows both what they don't want you to know. And also what happens when people find out. I don't know if you remember, there was the crash of the high-speed train just outside of Shanghai several years ago. And the government said there were no injuries. Nobody was killed. Nobody was hurt. No problem, no big deal. The people around there. They were it was an urban area. They saw the casualties. They saw that people had been killed. And they were so outraged that they went to Twitter and whatever the Chinese equivalent of Twitter is the and put these stories out that said, this is not true. We saw dying people with our own eyes. And that's a real danger when the government puts out the narrative about something, but people can check it with their own eyes, that really does create an impression with people.

SS: What is VOA stance in terms of, you know, reporters, for instance, as you said, like, you know, even if you're not a journalist, when you are exposed to information that the government or it really party and authoritarian government doesn't want you to see you face danger. And I think VOA is very clear about that kind of, you know, consequences. We've had reporters slain and line of duty, you want to talk about a little bit about, you know how dangerous it is, for instance, for our reporters on the ground?

AB: Well, it's very dangerous, because they face we just had a journalist killed last year and Somalia by a while he was working while he was covering a story when a car bomb went off near the story. So they're facing the ordinary, the ordinary, but tragic dangers of their own societies where car bombs are, you know, being targeted to public places. But then they're also facing the possibility that they will be specifically targeted by people who don't like their reporting. And we see that all around the world that journalists who say trying to uncover corruption are particularly vulnerable to individual targeting.

SS: One last question I'd like to ask you, you are heading this really important project about press freedom, it's very important to VOA and you, you're very invested in this. People would like to know what that project is about why it's it's so important to you?

AB: Well, we say that VOA represents press freedom around the world. And so we all thought it was really important that we make an effort to cover the stories of press freedom, so that we begin to cover the stories that show all the various ways not just jailing, and killing, but all the various ways that information is controlled, so that people can start to see what kinds of things are happening to keep them from the information they know, they should know. And also to try and show kind of ways that people can reach out for press freedom. It's not always just as closing down. Like for example, in Ethiopia right now it's going exactly opposite. With the new leadership there. They're opening their opening out the press area. And so we want people to see a full picture of press freedom so they can decide for themselves how important this is to them.

SS: Well, that's that's it for me. But if there's anything you'd like to add about, about press freedom.

AB: Well, I thank you very much for doing this interview. Because as I say, we actually believe that press freedom is actually the essential thing for a democratic society. Because if the people can't see here and trust, what information they're hearing, then they have no power in and without power without the people having power. You can't have a democracy.

SS: On that note, this concludes our interview. Thank you so much for making time again. I truly appreciate it.

AB: Thank you so much. I really appreciate being asked.