THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MR PRICE: Good morning. Welcome to the Department of State’s Washington Foreign Press Center. My name is Ned Price; I’m the spokesperson here at the Department of State. And I’m especially pleased to be with you here today in person, the first time we’ve been able to hold an in-person press briefing at the Foreign Press Center in over two years, since the start of COVID-19 pandemic.
And it’s especially notable that we are able to do that today on World Press Freedom Day. And it’s my distinct honor to have with us Secretary of State Blinken, who will be able to offer some remarks on World Press Freedom Day and to take your questions. We have journalists here in person. We also have journalists with us online. We’ll be able to hear from both of them.
Before I hand the podium over to Secretary Blinken, just some quick announcements at the top. After his opening remarks, I’ll open the floor to questions. We’ll first take a few questions from here in the room. Please do wait until you’re handed a microphone before you start asking your questions. We would also ask that you keep your question brief so that we can take as many questions as we are able to. We will then move to Zoom. Please do raise your digital hand on the Zoom, and we will call on you from there. We ask that you please click “raise hand” to notify that you have a question. Please do unmute yourself before speaking, and we’ll take your question.
This, of course, is live-streamed. There will be a transcript available after the fact. And now, as I said before, it’s my distinct pleasure to introduce Secretary Blinken. Secretary Blinken, the podium is yours.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Morning, everyone. Ned, thank you very, very much. And it is particularly good to be here, and I wanted to start by saying welcome, everyone, to the Foreign Press Center. It’s been too long since those words have actually been said. This is the first in-person event, as Ned said, that we’ve been able to have in over two years as a result of the pandemic. And I can’t imagine a more fitting occasion than to do it on World Press Freedom Day. So welcome back, everyone.
The United States has a vital stake in promoting the right to freedom of expression, including a free press, at home and also around the world. The free flow of information, ideas, opinions, including dissenting ones, is essential to inclusive and tolerant societies.
A vibrant independent press is a cornerstone for any healthy democracy. At its core is the idea that information is a public good, crucial to everything we do, to every decision that we make. And often we trust the press with providing that information. It’s what helps citizens understand the events, the forces that are shaping their lives. It allows people to engage meaningfully in the political and civic spheres of their communities, their nations, and the world.
A free press is one of the most effective tools that we have for advancing human rights. Whether it’s documenting unjust working conditions, corrupt or failing public services, discrimination against women and marginalized groups, abuse of security forces, accurate reporting shines a bright light on the parts of our societies that need fixing, that need to be illuminated. That brings pressure to change, to form, as we say in the United States, a more perfect union.
Having said that, we meet a time when the exercise of freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, faces profound threats. Some of these are old; some are new. Threats that we, the United States Government, Department of State, all of us as citizens have an abiding interest in confronting, and doing so head on.
Just last Thursday, April 28th, journalist Vera Hyrych was killed when the apartment that she was living in was struck by the Russian military in Kyiv. Vera is one of 11 journalists killed in Ukraine this year according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Many more have been wounded in conflict. One is Fox News correspondent Ben Hall, who was seriously wounded when the car that he and his team were traveling in was struck by incoming fire on March 14th. His cameraman, Pierre Zakrzewski, and his producer, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, [were] killed in this attack.
I know Ben well. He’s traveled with me on many occasions since I’ve been in this job. Thinking of him, his loved ones, the loved ones of Pierre and Oleksandra, and those of all who were killed in Ukraine. For my part, I look very much forward to welcoming Ben back to the press corps.
And as this group knows in particular, the Kremlin’s war of aggression on Ukraine is just one of many conflicts around the globe where journalists are putting their lives on the line right now as we speak, as we gather, in order to report the news.
In Burma this past January, journalist Pu Tuidim’s body was discovered two days after he was abducted alongside nine other people in Chin State. In November, Yemeni journalist Rasha Abdullah al-Harazi and Mahmud al-Utmi, husband and wife, were driving together in Aden when a bomb attached to their car blew up. Rasha, who was pregnant, was killed. Mahmud survived and later told the UN Human Rights Council that he’d been threatened shortly before the attack by Houthis.
Of course, we also know that journalists face grave risks beyond areas of conflict. Around the world, governments – as well as non-state actors like terrorist groups and criminal organizations – threaten, harass, imprison, and attack journalists every week.
Two hundred and ninety-three journalists were behind bars at the end of 2021. That’s a new annual record, and this is according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The PRC continues to hold the highest number, imprisoning some 50 journalists, including eight from Hong Kong.
Other governments use the threat of imprisonment and lawsuits to intimidate journalists. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have systematically repressed the Afghan independent press, particularly women journalists and those working in rural areas. According to a survey conducted at the end of 2021, 40 percent of independent media outlets in Afghanistan have closed since the Taliban takeover.
When individual journalists are threatened, when they’re attacked, when they’re imprisoned, the chilling effects reach far beyond their targets. Some in the media start to self-censor. Others flee. Some stop reporting altogether. And when repressive governments come after journalists, human rights defenders, labor leaders, others in civil society are usually not far behind.
That was the message sent on April 7th, when an assailant attacked Russian editor and Nobel Prize winner Dmitry Muratov with red paint and acetone as he rode on a train outside of Moscow. Just some months before, I had the privilege of being on a panel with Dmitry during the Summit for Democracy. This attack, which U.S. intelligence assessed was the work of Russian intelligence, left Dmitry with chemical burns in his eyes, and sent a clear message to others considering criticizing the Kremlin’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
Governments are supplementing traditional forms of repression with new tactics aimed at undermining press freedom.
More governments are taking steps to control access to information – and news in particular – on the internet, whether through shutdowns, slowdowns, or outright censorship. These restrictions make it harder for reporting from inside closed areas to get out, and news from the outside getting in.
Technology is being used not only to block journalists, but to watch them. From 2020 to 2021, more than 30 reporters, editors, other media employees in El Salvador were hacked with the spyware Pegasus, according to an independent investigation – one of several countries where journalists, human rights defenders, and others in civil society have been targeted with this spyware. Last year, the Biden Administration placed the foreign company that produces Pegasus – the NSO Group – on the Entity List, forbidding it from receiving U.S. exports, including technologies, and seriously affecting its operations.
Whether these attacks on journalists are made using old methods or new ones, the overwhelming majority of crimes against journalists worldwide are carried out with impunity. This sends a clear message to perpetrators that they can keep targeting the press without consequences.
The U.S. Government is taking a wide range of action to push back against this repression and to strengthen press freedom. I’d like to highlight three aspects of what we’re doing in the time that we have today.
First, we are taking urgent steps to help protect journalists in conflict areas. In Ukraine, for example, we’re equipping journalists with flak jackets, first aid kits, satellite phones. We set up a press center in Lviv to help local and national Ukrainian media outlets continue their operations. We’re also offering emergency aid and psychosocial support to journalists who bear the invisible wounds of reporting from war zones. This work goes hand-in-hand with the Journalism Protection Platform that we announced at the Summit for Democracy a few months ago, which will provide at-risk journalists with training in digital and physical security, psychosocial care, and other forms of support.
Second, we continue to raise the profile of cases of journalists who are being targeted for their work – using every platform and diplomatic engagement that we have. Today and every day we think of American journalist Austin Tice, who has been held captive in Syria for nearly 10 years, a quarter of his life. We will continue to pursue every avenue to secure his release.
We’re rallying broader coalitions of countries to these efforts, such as the Media Freedom Coalition. This is a group of more than 50 countries that share our commitment to press freedom as well as to the safety of journalists. So, for example, when we call out Beijing for cracking down on independent media in Hong Kong, we’re doing it together with countries from every part of the world. And we’re using targeted sanctions to impose costs on the perpetrators of such attacks, including new authorities we created like the Khashoggi Ban.
Third, the United States is helping independent media in financial peril. We’re providing direct financial assistance to at-risk outlets. We’re working with business groups and the private sector to help them become more financially sustainable. At the same time, we’re providing financial support to reporters and news organizations unfairly targeted with litigation for their critical reporting.
So let me close with two words: Thank you. Thank you for all that you do. For all the challenges the press faces today, the work endures because of brave reporters like you.
Journalists like Adela Navarro, who I believe is joining us virtually today from Tijuana, Mexico, and whose publication, Zeta, continues to conduct essential reporting on tough issues like organized crime, corruption, even after several of her colleagues have been murdered with impunity.
Journalists like Ko Swe Win, also I believe joining us, who leads one of Burma’s last remaining independent news sites, Myanmar Now, which continues to cover the widespread atrocities being committed against the Burmese people by the military – work Ko continues in spite of having previously spent seven years in prison for opposing military rule, three of them in solitary confinement.
And journalists like Sevgil Musaeyava, joining us today from Ukraine, where she leads one of the country’s most widely read news sites, Ukrainska Pravda – work she continues even after her brother-in-law, documentarian and U.S. citizen Brent Renaud, was killed by Russian forces while reporting from Irpin on March 1st. Sevgil recently said in an interview – and I quote – “We are trying to make sure that the people [we report on] are not just statistics.”
In that, and so much more, you’re succeeding.
So to all the journalists here today, to all of you joining us online, to members of the media doing this work around the globe:
We’re humbled by your courage.
We’re in awe of your commitment to providing the public with the truth.
We’re honored to be your partners in advancing the essential cause of press freedom – today and every day.
And with that, I’m happy to take some questions.
MR PRICE: We’ll start with Stacy Hsu from the Central News Agency of Taiwan.
QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary, for doing this. The State Department’s Human Rights Report has for many years expressed a concern that Beijing is trying to influence sort of media outlets in Taiwan by either pressuring their parent company’s business interests in Beijing or pressuring companies with operations in China to avoid advertising with outlets that publish articles critical of Beijing. And I’m sure that’s happened not only in Taiwan but elsewhere as well. So based on the U.S. assessment, how serious is this problem, and how can we avoid, like, erosion of Taiwan’s press freedom?
And secondly, if I may, there have been concerns that with Elon Musk’s business ties to China, his acquisition of Twitter may allow Beijing to influence or censor critics on the social media platform. Do you agree with this concern? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. So to the first part of the question first, Taiwan is quite literally on the frontlines of the PRC’s hybrid warfare, including disinformation, including cyber attacks. And these are designed to basically distort the information environment and democratic processes. So we’ve partnered with Taiwanese authorities on this, civil society organizations, to support independent, fact-based journalism, to try to build societal resilience to disinformation and other forms of foreign interference. But it’s something that we look at very closely and that we continue to work on.
The second part of your question, on Twitter. So let me say first it’s a private company. I’m not going to comment on what is hypothetical at this stage.
Let me say more broadly, though, in response to the question, as we’ve just discussed, free speech – including free media, including platforms of one kind or another – are incredibly important to the Biden Administration. We’ve made that clear at home; we’ve made that clear around the world.
And I would say again – and this goes to the first part of your question as well as the second – we’ve been deeply concerned about what we’re seeing from the PRC in terms of its misuse of its technology to try to do things like increase surveillance, harassment, intimidation, censorship of PRC citizens, of journalists, of activists and others. And that includes abroad.
At the same time, we have a total imbalance because these very same leaders in Beijing are using the free and open media – that we ensure that are protected in democratic systems – to spread propaganda, to spread disinformation. And ultimately, that’s an unsustainable proposition.
Now, it also appears that they are further using these systems to stalk, harass, to threaten critics who are outside the PRC’s territory. We’ve condemned and we’ve taken action against these efforts, and we’ll continue to defend the principles of a free press, an open, secure, reliable, and interoperable internet and the benefits that flow from it.
MR PRICE: Alexander Panov, Novaya Gazeta.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for this event. I represent Novaya Gazeta, Russia. Of course, I want to ask you about Mr. Muratov, but you already mentioned this brutal attack on our editor and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Actually, could we expect any new statements regarding this situation?
And if I may, I want to tell about second case. This is Mr. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a political activist but he is former journalist. He was my colleague. We worked together 10 years. And actually, he was poisoned twice in Russia. Now he was arrested and he could get up to 15 years of prison. He is Washington Post columnist still, and he – his wife and his three kids live here in the northern Virginia.
And for those who are familiar with situation knew that it’s a kind of revenge. It’s not discreditation of Russian army in his speech of House of Representative of State of Arizona, but his – it’s revenge for Magnitsky Act, which Vladimir Kara-Murza and late Boris Nemtsov lobbied in U.S. continent, successfully lobbied.
Actually, could we wait for some statement from U.S. Government regarding this situation with this gentleman and regarding Mr. Muratov, and regarding generally the situation in Russia when lots of young Russian journalists had to leave country to work abroad because it’s like – it’s not just censorship, it’s military censorship in Russia. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, thank you very much for the question. A few things in response.
First, as I mentioned, I was with Dmitry Muratov on a panel during our Summit for Democracy just a few months ago. At that time, the news outlet that he was leading was able to operate, as were many others. And of course, that space – already incredibly restricted – has been virtually shut down.
I’d say generically governments, regimes that engage in these practices do not evidence a great deal of confidence in themselves. What are they afraid of? I think we know the answer: it’s the truth.
I had the opportunity some years ago to actually meet with your colleague, Mr. Kara-Murza, in Washington when he was here. This, I think, was back in 2016, 2015. I remember the conversation very vividly. And like you, we are deeply, deeply disturbed by his treatment. It’s a case that we’re following very, very closely.
As you know better than I do, he’s suffered arrests, he’s suffered near-fatal poisonings in connection with his peaceful political activities. And of course, these tactics have long been part of the Kremlin’s playbook.
So we urge Russia to cease the abuse of repressive laws to target nonviolent organizations and individuals as well as journalists. The Russian people, like people everywhere, have a right to speak freely, they have the right to form peaceful associations to common ends, they have the right to exercise freedom of expression and to have their voices heard through free and fair elections.
And of course, right now the mere fact of calling what is happening in Ukraine by its name – a brutal, unprovoked aggression, as opposed to the Orwellian special military operation – that risks getting anyone who does that 15 years in jail, as you’ve noted. Again, among many other things, not evidence of a government or leadership that actually has confidence in itself.
MR PRICE: Jahanzaib Ali, ARY Pakistan.
QUESTION: So thank you so much. Sir, Pakistan remains among those countries in the world considered most dangerous place for the journalists. Last year, many Pakistani journalists were killed, kidnapped, and tortured for exposing crime and corruption and criticizing some of the government policies. Sir, has State Department ever take up this issue in bilateral talks with the Pakistani authorities? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The short answer is yes, we take this up in our engagements with Pakistani counterparts. Of course, this is also a feature of the annual Human Rights Reports that we put out, and, of course, we’re aware of significant restrictions on media outlets and civil society more broadly in Pakistan. Here again a vibrant free press, an informed citizenry are key for any nation and its future, including Pakistan, and I think these practices that we see undermine freedom of expression. They undermine peaceful assembly. They undermine Pakistan’s image as well as its ability to progress. So it is something that comes up both in our direct engagements and in the work that we’re doing every day.
MR PRICE: We’ll take a couple questions online. As a reminder, please do raise your digital hand and unmute yourself if you’re called upon. We’ll start with Sevgil Musaeyava of Ukrainska Pravda.
QUESTION: Okay. Good morning, Secretary of State. First of all, thank you for your support of our country, continued support of our country, which is now fighting for democratic values not only in post-Soviet countries but all over the world. Thank you for mentioning my dear friend Brent Renaud, who was brutally killed in Ukraine on March.
For me personally, it’s not a war between democratic world and authoritarian regime; it’s also war between truth and propaganda. For the last eight – 20 years, actually, Russia destroyed all independent medias in their country and they supported state propaganda, and this propaganda now is disrupting not only information field of Ukraine but all over the world, in your country too. Few days ago, for example, CNN published an investigation about how Russian troll army worked in Ghana and how they spread information about Black Lives Matter’s campaign.
But I have one very personal question, very concrete case. Everybody knows about tragedy of Mariupol city, which is now occupied by Russia, but still a lot of our civilians and soldiers are blocked in Azovstal plant. Some of them were evacuated and we met them in control – Ukrainian-controlled territory, but a lot of people still are blocked in this plant. And Russian propaganda for the last eight years pictured those people – I mean soldiers, first of all – like Nazis. And for Putin now it’s justified and propaganda justified his cruelty against those people.
And so I have two questions. How we can save the lives of these people? And do you have a special plan how to fight against propaganda and how to minimize impact of Russian propaganda in your own country? Thank you so much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. And thank you for, again, the incredible courage that you and your colleagues are showing every single day in Ukraine. By the way, the contrast between media in Ukraine and media in Russia in and of itself speaks volumes. And in Ukraine, whether before the aggression or now during the aggression, its vibrant – incredibly vibrant – free press putting a light on everything that’s happening is invaluable. And again, we really applaud the courage that you’re showing every day.
So it’s a very significant challenge when it comes to dealing with the information environment in Russia that has been created and im- bolstered over many, many years. And a space that was already incredibly restricted is being shut down to virtually nothing just in the last six months. That’s not something that gets reversed overnight. But more people are speaking out, speaking up for more journalists who are doing their jobs to the extent possible in Russia but even outside of Russia. Over time and by different ways, information will find a crack and will get through. And over time, even in the most closed-down society in terms of its information space, I think it’s going to be very difficult to fully hide the truth.
And the truth is what in the world has Russia’s aggression in Ukraine done to benefit the Russian people? Absolutely nothing, and to the contrary, they are also bearing the consequences of the horrific decisions made by their leadership. How has this aggression advanced in any way desire for someone in Russia, like anywhere else, to have a good job, to educate their kids, to find opportunity, to live a life that promises an even better life for their children? How does that have anything to do with the basic aspirations that people have?
And on the contrary, of course, along [with] many other things, Putin’s actions have turned Russia into a pariah. The fact that virtually every leading company on Earth has exited from Russia speaks volumes to that. And that too is something that, over time, Russian people will feel in their daily lives and that will begin to penetrate the information space, and people increasingly, I believe, will ask themselves the question, “Why, to what end?”
But again, it takes a lot of time because this is a system that’s been built up over many, many years, many decades, but the most important thing is for people, wherever they are, to continue doing their jobs, continue to shine a light on what’s happening in Ukraine, continue to get the information out there, and it will ultimately find its way to its destination.
We’ve been across the board, of course, deeply concerned about those in various parts of Ukraine who are trapped by the Russian onslaught. Mariupol is front and center in the news for so many people, continues to be contested, and simply put, people need to be allowed out and humanitarian assistance needs to be allowed in. We’ve seen efforts over the last couple of months to have humanitarian corridors to allow people to exit. In virtually every instance, those corridors have not held up because Russia has not abided by the commitments that it made.
Now, we just had one successful exit from Mariupol of about a hundred people just yesterday, but then again, the corridors was shut down, and it’s – my understanding is that the shelling and targeting and rocketing of people who are trapped in this factory area has resumed.
Here again, I think it’s incredibly important for the work that all of you are doing to just keep shining a light on it, to make sure that the world knows, to the best of our ability, what’s actually going on; to see, to know, to understand the brutality of it, the inhumanity of it. And that too, over time, I think, has a way of putting pressure on those who are engaging in these actions to change course.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to Swe Win, Voice of Burma.
QUESTION: Good morning, Mr. Secretary. This is Swe Win from Burma. Let me ask you a question regarding the U.S. policy to Burma. In response to the latest military coup there last year, the United States froze $1 billion of – Burma had at the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in New York. There are some rumors out there that the U.S. Government is considering to release those funds to opposition groups in Burma.
Is there any element of truth in that? Does the U.S. have any plan to actively support a nationwide and resistant movement in Burma against the military junta, such as by weapons as you are now doing for Ukraine? Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. Let me say first, generally, we have, we are, we will continue to support the aspirations of the Burmese people to return to the path of democracy. We’re doing that in a variety of ways, and this is the focus of our actions. Since the coup, we have sanctioned over 27 entities, 70 individuals. This includes military leaders, it includes officers, it includes cronies who support the regime.
Having said that, we, the international community, believe that more needs to be done. For example – and this is, I think, an important focus – ending the sale and the transfer of arms, materiel, of dual-use equipment, technical assistance to the military regime, which it is then in turn using to abuse the Burmese people. We continue to press and we will continue to look for different ways to be effective in pressing for it. We continue to press the regime to release all those who’ve been unjustly detained, to allow unhindered humanitarian access, to advance the peaceful resolution of the crisis, to restore the path to democracy.
So as we’re doing this, we will continue to look at what tools we believe we have, others may have, to do it more effectively. And that’s an ongoing proposition but something that we take very, very seriously.
It’s one of the more deeply disturbing tragedies that we have – we’ve experienced and that the Burmese people especially have experienced, in no small measure because of the extraordinary hope and expectations that have been created by this move to democracy – the fact that it’s been derailed, and not only derailed but derailed in such a violent, repressive way.
It’s something that should continue and needs to continue: to galvanize the attention, the focus, the determination of the world to help Burma get back on the democratic track that was interrupted.
MR PRICE: That unfortunately has exhausted our time for today, but I would be remiss on World Press Freedom Day if I didn’t remind everyone here in person to please attend our daily press briefings at the Department if you’re able. For those of you who are based around the world, please do feel free to dial into our phone briefings, which we also do regularly.
Thank you, Mr. Secretary. If I could ask everyone to please remain seated, and we hope to see you soon.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, folks.