WaPo's Martin Baron Delivers Keynote Address at ICFJ's Awards Dinner

Joyce asked me awhile back if I might get Jeff Bezos to give a keynote speech. This is what she got.

Even as second choice, it’s a great honor to be here. This is a great organization. It pursues an important mission. It maintains high standards. I hope I can meet them tonight.

I know this. I can’t do better than the award winners here tonight with their inspiring remarks. All of us admire you.

The subject I want to talk about is urgent, in my view, and we’ve already heard a bit about it tonight: Journalists are under threat. Journalism itself is threatened.

There is much to be optimistic about. But there is also much to concern us.

Governments worldwide are making our work harder through obstruction, surveillance, intimidation. And autocratic governments, along with terrorist and criminal organizations, see killing, kidnapping, maiming, and jailing reporters as all in a day’s work.

This deserves our serious attention, especially today when we celebrate journalists of courage and achievement. We need eyewitnesses and honest accounts. The world cannot be covered from the office. It cannot be explained solely by reading reports, studies, and books. We must be out in the world. We need real reporting.

Now is a moment to consider how to better protect our people and our mission. What technology do we need? What new training must we provide? How do we build professional support networks that are faster, more nimble, more effective? How do we report safely when so much and so many conspire to defeat us.

This past April, after the Pulitzers were announced, an opinion column appeared in Spain’s El Pais. It was titled “The Latin American Pulitzers.”

It began: “If there were a Pulitzer for Latin American journalism, also in the category of public service, it would be a daily event.”

It continued: “Receiving it would be Cuban bloggers who face an information monopoly that limits their access to the Internet, censors them, intimidates them, and prevents them from dissenting. It would also go to the Honduran journalists, world leader in journalists assassinated per capita . . .

“Another Pulitzer would go to the Mexican journalists who risk their lives investigating connections between the economic power of the drug trafficker and political power...and another for the Argentine journalists, victims of judicial harassment by the government, and street protests by social organizations created and financed by the government…”

Credit goes to Hector Schamis, professor at Georgetown University, for that eloquent piece – a reminder that others face challenges far more daunting than our own here in the United States. More and more, around the world, the simple, noble act of free expression is being extinguished.

Two images this year cannot, must not, be forgotten. Those are the images of James Foley and Steve Sotloff, independent journalists executed by the Islamic State. Their fate made horrifyingly clear the risks that journalists now face in telling the world what they see.

Their execution stood also as metaphor for the sinister designs of all those who do violence to journalism itself – silencing those who arm themselves with nothing more than pen, camera, and keyboard. Journalists need not be killed, of course, to bury the truth.

Not long ago, we imagined a free press might blossom in a new Russia. Today, most Russians get their information from state-controlled broadcasters disseminating propaganda, conspiracy, jingoism.

After the shoot-down of the Malaysian Airliner in Ukraine, the editor in chief of Russia 24 said this: “As state TV, our mission is to support the interests of the state. [Official] opinions are determinative for our programs, for our channel.” The predominant news report in Russia then, and since, has been an alternative universe, contradicting what all the world knows to be true about how 298 people came to die.

In Hungary, a member of NATO and the European Union, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has moved to undermine an independent press with a crippling tax on advertising revenue. A media council can fine news organizations, blogs, and personal websites for vague offenses: Failure to provide “balanced coverage.” News that is “insulting to communities.”

In Egypt over a year ago, Sky News cameraman Mick Deane was filming protests by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. An Egyptian military sniper shot him. Recalling that killing, his wife recently wrote: “I think the security forces just got tired of seeing him there.”

She noted he was only doing his job. “Just like,” she wrote, “three journalists from the Al Jazeera network, including an Australian reporter, who are now serving long prison sentences in Cairo. And the three Egyptian journalists who were killed that same day, including a 26-year-old woman.”

In recent weeks, Egyptian newspaper editors have pledged near-absolute support for the state, pledging to ban criticism of the police, army, and judiciary in their pages.

In Venezuela, government regulations, withheld licenses, supply shortages, and lawsuits have pushed independent media into an abyss. New buyers emerge mysteriously, only to oust free-thinking columnists and disband investigative teams.

In my own newsroom, the dangers for journalists working abroad have been felt all too acutely.

Two years ago this August, while reporting in Syria, Austin Tice disappeared. He was a freelance journalist. He contributed articles to The Washington Post, McClatchy, and others. No one has heard from him or his captors. Humanity requires his release.

Austin was one of more than 90 journalists, local and foreign, kidnapped in Syria in the past three years, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. Worse, more than 70 journalists, most of them local, have been killed in that time.

On July 22, our Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh, also a journalist, were arrested along with two others in Iran. Jason is a citizen of the United States and Iran. He had dedicated himself to shedding light on the culture and people of his heritage.

Today, though his wife has been released, Jason remains in a prison – more than 100 days after he was arrested. The government says he’s being investigated for a “crime” but won’t say what it is. His medical care is, by all appearances, substandard. He hasn’t been able to see a lawyer. The Iranian government should let this good man go so he can enjoy the freedom that is his right.

Recently, there has been hopeful anticipation that the Internet and social media will yield a golden era of free speech.

In their outstanding book, “The New Digital Age,” Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen predict that “authoritarian governments will find their newly connected populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs.”

And yet they note how authoritarian governments will have powerful weapons of their own, “derived from their position as gatekeeper” in a world of connectivity.

Schmidt and Cohen believe new technologies give individuals the upper hand. I am not so confident. Almost a year ago, I spoke with a leading figure in the governance of the Internet. We talked about surveillance by the NSA, how it had tapped so voraciously into international data networks. He had been traveling Asia, gathering reactions of world leaders.

Here’s what he did not hear: outrage. Here’s what he did hear: jealousy. Leaders told him: “We have excellent computer engineers. Why haven’t we been able to do this?” And they aspired to develop the capability themselves.

Despite their long-term optimism, Schmidt and Cohen certainly see this coming. “States,” they note, “have an enormous amount of power over the mechanics of the Internet in their own countries. Because states have power over the physical infrastructure connectivity requires – the transmission towers, the routers, the switches – they control the entry, exit and waypoints for Internet data. They can limit content, control what hardware people are allowed to use and even create separate Internets.”

China already blocks and filters information and sites -- pervasively and with gusto. Turkey has blocked thousands of sites. Other governments openly block content based on what is deemed culturally or politically unacceptable.

Schmidt and Cohen raise the prospect that countries will create their own domain name system. “No government has yet achieved an alternative system,” they write, “but if a government succeeded in doing so, it would effectively unplug its population from the global Internet and instead offer only a closed, national intranet.”

We in the press are not prepared for a future so dark. We need to think hard about how to get ready. I’m not here with answers. But we need to work together on developing some. We cannot do it soon enough.

And what about the United States? We have a distinct role in promoting free expression and a free press. In policy and practice, we must embrace these principles without reservation.

Sadly, we are slipping. Our government is addicted to classifying documents, withholding information that citizens have a right to know. We have an Espionage Act that serves as invitation to punish the press for holding its government to account in its most fearsome national security powers.

Proliferating leak investigations have sowed fear in government officials. Many avoid reporters, worried that any contact will make them objects of suspicion. FOIA requests are not addressed as the law requires.

And we have a distinguished, determined, courageous journalist facing the prospect of prison for failure to reveal a source: Jim Risen of the New York Times deserves to remain free, deserves to be with his family, and should be allowed to do his job.

Too many countries already threaten a free press and free expression. America must show that it is on a different path, one that has served us well since this nation was founded. We have been a beacon to others. We should remain one.

Thank you again for inviting me.

Watch the video