Remarks by Ambassador Lisa Peterson
Open Editors Forum Biennial General Meeting
Pigg’s Peak Hotel
Sunday December 18, 2016 – 13h00
Chair of the Forum
All protocols observed
Each year, we celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10th to acknowledge and to honor the full scope of rights accorded to every human being. This may conjure an image of the refugees and displaced persons who are fleeing human rights violations in their countries, or millions of girls and women facing gender-based violence on a daily basis. These examples highlight one aspect of the struggle to achieve human rights and dignity for all. As editors and journalists, you have the ability to define and to influence public opinion of human rights issues and the responsibility to call attention to violations. As an example, critical reporting out of Aleppo, in Syria, typifies the nexus between press freedom and human rights. When done well, journalism still has the power to illuminate problems, shift minds and conversations, and move people to concrete action.
In the past fifteen years, the digital revolution has had an impact on nearly every industry in the world. It has engendered new norms for how people both interact with and process information. These days, we are likely to derive more salient information from a thirty-second video than from a full-page newspaper article. Responding to readers’ limited attention, faced with and expectation of instant response time, and coping with diminishing resources, media entities turn increasingly to brevity and witty headlines, which are displacing thorough research and substantive content. So, I would argue that no industry has undergone more existential change in recent years than journalism. For those who came of age during a different era, new journalistic standards can feel jarring and scattered. How do you sustain public interest on any issue, especially human rights, when the average person spends 15 seconds or less on an article? How do you imbue the masses with lasting and meaningful information in 140 characters or less? These are the persistent challenges which editors like yourselves must confront. And the task is only getting harder.
Following our recent U.S. presidential elections, it was discovered that large swaths of voters were reading patently false news stories that bordered on conspiracy theories. In one recent and horrifying case, a man drove hundreds of miles to Washington, D.C. hoping to uncover a child sex trafficking ring operating out of a pizza parlor. He took a gun inside the restaurant, pointed it at an employee, and fired a shot inside the restaurant. Fortunately, no one was injured, but what drove him to such extreme measures? He read a fabricated news story that had been disseminated and republished online within like-minded circles. Today, anyone can create a website or blog, call themselves an expert, and begin distributing to the masses. When opinions masquerade as facts, this becomes a slippery and dangerous slope of misinformation.
The United States, along with everyone else, is grappling with how to uphold journalistic integrity and press freedom in a space where information sources are increasingly diffuse, mobile, and unsubstantiated. Moreover, the average citizen can easily stay within her own ideological universe, seeking out only those who share her opinions and ideas. This practice impedes independent thought, analysis, and research. Imagine the result when both citizens and the press fail to fact-check and seek truth.
I understand fully the constraints facing editors and journalists today. At the end of the day, you have to deliver information in a timely way that pleases the public and generates a profit. You are competing with many more sources of information than your predecessors had to contend with, which means you have to be highly adaptive and even more creative when producing stories and content. Part of your responsibility, then, is to ensure that the content is factual, accurate, and balanced. I have read many stories in the Swazi papers that projected only one viewpoint as the authority on a matter. I have seen shocking headlines that belied the actual subject of the article. Efforts to use media platforms to raise awareness on human rights issues often see these stories buried, literally, towards the middle or back of the newspapers. The message, whether deliberate or not, is that these issues do not matter.
In recent months, I have been disturbed by efforts, picked up by the media, to vilify Swaziland’s Asian population, some of whom may have committed the offenses detailed by neighbors and politicians, but all of whom are currently being painted with the same accusatory brush. And it is not a difficult leap from attacking Asians to attacking Muslims, who are accorded the freedom and the right to practice their religion under Swaziland’s Constitution. Other countries, including my own, have followed this pattern of singling out “the other” – whether that is an ethnic or religious distinction – with disastrous effect.
For anyone who has been following U.S. politics, you are well aware of our own challenges to create more inclusive spaces for all Americans. In the aftermath of our recent presidential elections, there has been a sharp spike in harassment and intimidation of minority groups, especially LGBT persons. Such incidents have received widespread media coverage and have prompted NGO and civil rights organizations to mobilize. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center, instrumental in fighting inequality during the Civil Rights Movement, has created community reporting mechanisms, a “hate map” to track those incidents, and is offering training for law enforcement officials on responding to hate crimes. It illustrates how the media can and should partner with human rights and civil society organizations to continuously underscore issues, in a balanced and objective way, to effect positive social change.
According to one Ugandan-American radio host, journalists are “servants of the truth.” In short, your allegiance has to rest with providing credible, timely, and truthful information to the people. Likewise, reporting on human rights abuses must be framed in a way that respects and honors victims, spurs citizens to take action, and calls on authorities to administer commensurate justice. We cannot take for granted that people know and understand their rights. Your jobs – as stewards of information and journalistic integrity – should focus on shepherding key messages with the least amount of confusion and interference possible. It is a tall order, but one that I trust your organization will continue to strive for.