The Doorstep: Press Freedom & Foreign Policy Panel, with Stephen J. Adler & Carlos Martínez de la Serna

Jun 4, 2021

Advocating for press freedom around the globe has long been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. The Trump administration changed the rules, but what can Biden do to restore the public's faith in the press? "Doorstep" co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin speak with Stephen J. Adler, board chair of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director for Committee to Protect Journalists.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council. Very excited today to talk about global press freedom, an issue very close to my heart as a former Forbes reporter and as someone who launched First Amendment Watch. Free speech and press freedom are so important, and we have two super-advocates for press freedom here with us today.

Stephen J. Adler is currently the board chair of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Columbia Journalism Review. He is also former editor-in-chief of Reuters News, so firsthand experience of what reporters are experiencing on the ground.

Similarly, Carlos Martínez de la Serna joins us from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), where he is a program director leading a team of researchers investigating attacks on journalists globally. He is a former journalist also, so you can also give us your perspective on what's happening on the ground around the world.

I think this issue is important to our audience. We try to connect international news with our audience to make it real and demonstrate why this is important today. I really liked what CPJ said in a statement where you were giving advice to what the Biden-Harris administration should do. You led with: "The defense of press freedom has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since World War II." I don't know how many people in our audience recognize this fact, or maybe they recognize it but it has disappeared a little bit. "In the realm of press freedom, the U.S. is the 'indispensable nation.'" Wow. That is a very strong statement.

So I ask, Carlos and Steve, are we? Are we indispensable in press freedom?

STEPHEN ADLER: I will start. Yes, absolutely. The United States has an outsized role in press freedom around the world, and we really saw that during the Trump administration, in both the absence of that and the actual negativity. I think the United States has made it a part of foreign policy somewhat inconsistently, but ambassadors and even presidents and cabinet members have definitely been out there in the world trying to put a damper on restrictions on press freedom and make it an issue, and sometimes a public issue, when dealing with other governments.

We saw the contrast during the Trump administration when the president the called the media "the enemy of the people," and started to popularize the concept of "fake news," and we see several dozen countries actually passing laws against fake news using those words in the aftermath of that. I think the United States went from a very significant positive force to a pretty significant negative force that empowered or enabled authoritarian countries around the world to restrict press freedom knowing that the United States would not stand in the way and perhaps would even encourage it.

That has been an enormous issue, and what waits to be seen now—and what we are very interested in, all of us—is what will happen with the Biden administration. How much credibility does the United States have left in this sphere, and how much of that credibility is the Biden administration going to try to leverage in favor of press freedom issues?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Carlos, has the United States lost credibility? What do you think?

CARLOS MARTINEZ de la SERNA: I think so. I think it is hard not to look back at the Trump administration's record and think about the negative impact it had in many aspects regarding press freedom. We can look within the United States, and we can definitely look at the impact outside. I don't think we would be seeing some of the things we are seeing today, for example the current situation in countries like El Salvador, for example, in Brazil, or in other places around the world if not for the four years of the Trump administration that completely disregarded the role of the press and the role of the U.S. administration in defending that role, in advocating for a free press.

So it is not that the foreign policy of the United States being exempt of contradictions from this case history, but it is the case for the United States and for any other country. But it has been always there. It is defending press freedom abroad at least and also internally there was something consistent with its values, its principles, and its ideals of what it wanted to achieve. That was completely absent during the Trump administration, and the problem is that through those four years, other countries were leaning towards the opposite in the sense of attacking the press in a way that it was planting the seeds for some of the things we are seeing right now.

STEPHEN ADLER: I think the connection that Carlos makes between what is happening in the United States and what is happening abroad is really important because it is not just a question of policy or how the United States talks about press freedom when it is working around the world, but it is also a question of example.

In the United States we see so much difficulty the press is having in all sorts of realms—members of the press being physically attacked and abused by police during many of the street protests; we see the seizure of phone records by the Trump administration, which is a big issue right now that we are hoping that the Biden Justice Department takes a strong stand on; you see the trolling that goes on online, some of it extraordinarily vicious, that has certainly been encouraged and participated in by people who have been in the government. That example creates a toxicity around the media that is not only dangerous in the United States but also has these ramifications and this spillover effect when you look at it globally.

CARLOS MARTINEZ de la SERNA: To add to what Stephen was saying, I think it might be interesting for the audience to realize that foreign policy is a concept that is later implemented through very specific things, like consulates, embassies, and ambassadors. Those are specific things. Those are frontline defenders actually. That has been historically the case regardless of administration. When journalists have problems in any country, they trust that they could go to the U.S. embassy and rely on the support of the embassy, the consulate. The embassies attended trials and helped many times, not publicly, but they were frontline.

We went from that practice to an administration that not only disregarded that in their public statements but stopped supporting that type of thing that is essential. So the U.S. influence goes from the importance of setting the tone and making the principles very clear, to that very basic and important defense that many journalists around the world are relying on.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is super-important. Both of you are talking about tone, example, and leadership. We are a few months in. What changes are you seeing? Are you not seeing any changes? Where are we in the balance here, and did the last four years lead to what happened in Belarus with the Ryanair flight being taken down? For those of us in our audience who may not know, there was a bomb threat against this particular flight, but once the flight landed in Belarus, the authorities went on and arrested blogger and independent journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, and they are currently in jail in Belarus and giving what some say are forced confessions. We don't know much more than that. It is difficult to get information.

But did these last four years empower what happened, and can we turn the tide?

STEPHEN ADLER: I will take that for a moment and then turn it over to Carlos.

I am not sure that the United States would have been able to stop that or that the environment would have changed. I think the issues in places like Belarus and Russia have been extremely difficult and would be for any president. I think it is also probably not a good idea to attribute any specific action to either an absence of involvement by the United States or negative involvement.

That was a bizarre situation. Here was somebody who was not even traveling to or from Belarus. I don't think we have ever seen anything like that, and it is very, very scary. But I do think it goes specifically to issues of authoritarianism in that region.

As far as the Biden administration right now, the Committee to Protect Journalists has sought the appointment of a press freedom envoy or emissary, which I personally think is a good idea, and I think as far as we can tell, people in the administration who we have met with or talked to have a positive approach towards this and see it positively, so I think the issue is going to be more a question of priorities. This is an administration that is working on more than a trillion-dollar rescue and infrastructure plan, we are a very polarized country, and there is limited bandwidth, so I think the question we are all waiting to get answered is: Is this going to be a high enough priority and recognized as something that is critical, or is it going to fall a little bit by the wayside?

I think one early test of that is how the Justice Department responds and how actively it responds to the three separate reports of seizures of phone records by the Trump administration Justice Department, and we haven't, although President Biden came out strongly against those kinds of seizures, what we in the press freedom world would like to see is a real accounting for what were the rationales given at the time, how did this get approved, and what was the thinking around why this was appropriate, and how do we make sure that approach does not go forward? We are still waiting to see that, and that has not happened yet. That would be a good indication that there was a high level of interest in this.

CARLOS MARTINEZ de la SERNA: I would totally agree with Stephen. I think it is very difficult and I think it removes the complexities of the situation that we try to blame specific cases on—as important was the Trump's Administration setting the tone and agenda and mostly, I would say, creating an environment in which is way more difficult to defend press freedom.

The situation in Belarus precedes that, and it has always had a terrible press freedom record. Its involvement with Russia and the situation around the contested elections in August 2020, where they did everything, I think speaks about the global press freedom situation deterioration in many countries, in countries where there is a democracy and in countries where there is no democracy but journalists still persist and keep reporting.

I think what we want to see from the Biden administration is taking this as serious as it is, in terms that we need them to speak up publicly quickly on these types of violation and to take press freedom as a foundational principle and not a transactional principle that you can maybe bring up in some contexts but not in others. That will again help all of us, and certainly journalists, create a better safety environment for them, which in some cases is extremely complex and is not going to be solved just by one administration.

The situation in Belarus is extremely difficult, but I think it is always important to remember always that there are things you can do, there are always things we all can do, specific things. We can keep the pressure on that press freedom is something that is non-negotiable. We can of course express solidarity in many forms: Support directly family, relatives, and colleagues in the country. We need to ask foreign embassies to attend trials.

That is something that does not seem like a big lift, but it is important for journalists to know that foreign embassies are going to be there monitoring trials and legal aspects of defending press freedom—and Stephen can talk about the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, exceptional work on that—is very important, so we need to work together with all groups like legal support to actually defend journalists when their rights are being threatened or they are physically being attacked. So there are many things that can happen at the basic level from the embassies to institutions and international agencies. That's what we expect from the Biden administration, to help articulate and support that agenda.

STEPHEN ADLER: I think another thing to note is that this is a much wider phenomenon than just the few countries we have talked about. It is also disturbing that countries that have been part of a democratic evolution or have been described as being part of a democratic evolution are going significantly backwards in this area. You think of Ethiopia, which had started to open up in terms of press freedom and now is a really, really dangerous place. One of our journalists from Reuters, Kumerra Gemechu, was arrested for no known reason and held for 12 days, and a number of other journalists there have been arrested.

In Myanmar we had two journalists who were imprisoned for 511 days on false charges. Myanmar has become a disaster for journalism, and it was actually a place where independent local journalism was flowering, so there were issues under Aung San Suu Kyi, but it has clearly gotten worse in the current situation. You also look at India, which has become a difficult place for independent journalism to occur. You look at Turkey. Hong Kong with its new national security laws is an incredibly difficult and dangerous place to do journalism. Russia has always been problematic.

So these issues are going on all over the world, and I do think they are part of a trend that isn't just about Donald Trump or the United States. I think there are a lot of things—Carlos, I am sure, has his own views.

To me, one of the things I saw in my ten years in the Reuters role was that as social media grew, the ability of countries and terrorist organizations as well to reach their intended audience directly and not go through the media empowered them to basically take the position that you have to be for us or against us, and if you are against us, we are going to persecute you, imprison you, and maybe kill you, and if you are for us, you will essentially become part of our propaganda mechanism, and you see that going on all over the world, and the effectiveness in Myanmar until Facebook cut them out, the military and the government primarily communicated through Facebook, and Facebook allowed that for a very long period of time. So we have to look at all of those things, how the social media companies empower authoritarian regimes, and, it is a very complicated issue, but we have to be thinking in a sophisticated way about that.

We also have to be thinking about the unpopularity of the media around the world, which is a phenomenon that has multiple factors. You may be familiar with the Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust of various institutions, and the one in 2021 showed that 59 percent of people they surveyed globally believe that the press intentionally says false things and intentionally were trying to mislead people and cared much more about their political ideology than about facts or the truth. So we do need to find a way to get back to a place where people care about facts and they recognize what good journalism is. I think media literacy education is incredibly important so people can distinguish between misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and news. So we have a lot of work to do ourselves on trying to find a way to rebuild trust in media so that there is a stronger argument to make for a free press.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It is almost as if you were reading my mind in the comments you just raised because I had just jotted down some points here, and one of them was that we have seen this trend over the last 10 to 15 years, bipartisan in the United States certainly, and in other democracies as well as non-democracies, of invoking national security considerations against reporting. You talked a bit about the impact of social media and also the idea that people on social media increasingly may be primed to say: "Why do I need to await the reporting done by a reporter because I just read an interesting Facebook post that someone forwarded to me, and they are basically about equal?" The loss of trust I think is also an important question.

That brings me back to something about the Roman Protasevich case that I would like to raise with you, which is how he is being described. It goes back and forth between him as a reporter, as a media figure, as a chronicler of events versus him described as an activist and an opposition figure, and that to me suggests—to get your opinion on this, is that a risky blurring of roles? That is to say, "I am a member of the press, but I am also an activist, or I am seeking political outcomes."

You raised this about the Barometer survey on this. Do we need to go back, or is part of media literacy also to media organizations—do we need to redefine what it is to be a reporter, a figure in the media, in terms of understanding are you a reporter, are you an activist, are you chronicling events, or are you trying to shape them? Or is that a distinction without a difference? I would be interested in your take.

Also, you talked a bit about governments intervening. At what point does a government say, "We don't think you are a member of the media?" We saw this with the Jamal Khashoggi case, that there were some who backed away: "Well, he's a columnist, but is he really the media, a reporter, or is he something else?" and I think that was the wiggle room that allowed certainly the U.S. government to perhaps sidestep the question of his murder as an attack on press freedom.

Sorry for the longwinded setup there, but I would be interested in your thoughts.

STEPHEN ADLER: Maybe Carlos can start in on this because I know CPJ has to grapple with this issue all the time, so I would love to hear his take, but I will also come in after.

CARLOS MARTINEZ de la SERNA: Thank you. For us it is very important not to focus on the definition of journalism but to define the context around the person who is not being able to do a certain job. When we go about any case in the world, when there is any press freedom persecution or violation what we try to understand is the context.

I think we need to start from a situation where the idea of a professional journalist is very different around the world, and depending on the context in some places it is very difficult if not impossible to be an independent professional journalist. You can be a professional journalist but cannot within structures that are not necessarily independent because one of the best strategies to attack press freedom is to outlaw journalism, to make journalism as such outlawed.

Then we are going to be seeing a lot of people working on the edges doing journalism and committing acts of journalism that might not as such look like the academic or standard definition, but that does not reflect the realities of the job, the reporting, and the incident.

So Roman Petrasevich was doing journalism and is definitely a journalist. I don't care about anything else you might add to his work, but I think it is important that is part of the misinformation campaign and is part of starting to outlaw journalism to foster these endless conversations about "Is this journalism? Is that journalism? Was Khashoggi a journalist or not?" I think it is irrelevant. To the extent that they were committing acts of journalism, they require certain freedom, that breathing space in the context of the First Amendment, and that it wasn't there.

That is why we are denouncing that this person cannot do this, this is an act of journalism, this is not a crime basically. I think for us we try to be very fact based about the context, the situation, and the overall context for the country, so we try to bypass that conversation and focus on the important thing, which is that journalism, in any of the forms it might take, is not a crime.

STEPHEN ADLER: I completely agree with what Carlos said about that.

To take the second question, which I think is a slightly different question, which is: Would the media be trusted more if particularly the big Western media—and again, what journalism is is very different in different countries, the context is different, and the ability to be so-called "neutral" may not exist in many countries. But if you are looking at the United States and you are looking at the West, there is a very, very active debate going on around whether there is still something valid about the old principles that we would have called "objective journalism," or whether that is sort of a smokescreen for a ruling-class perspective on the world.

The way I would come at that question, at least from a Western perspective, is I do think of journalism as a craft, and if you think of various crafts, ranging from—I have dentistry in my mind because I have just had some—a dentist to an accountant, many, many people who perform very specific skilled services we do not generally pay a lot of attention to what their political views are, nor do we especially care nor should we especially care.

So there is an aspect of journalism that I think is craft. We are trained and skilled in gathering information and getting beneath the surface and finding out things that other people don't want us to know in doing forensics and doing data journalism where fundamentally we are trying to find out a set of facts that are elusive and difficult to find, and if we are good at it and we practice our craft well, then we will come up with a set of facts, and to me that shouldn't be about what your political position is or what your own personal truth is, but rather as a fact finder, as somebody who is just good at that because it is their skill, and then, to try to distribute that honestly as well as you can so that people can take that information and say, "Okay, the earth is warming at a certain rate," or if there is flooding going on here, maybe there is social action that needs to occur, but to let that user or that reader come to that conclusion based on the reporter who is helping you figure out, for example, is Exxon actually following so-called "environmental, social, and governance" provisions or not or all the things that we are reading about now.

I believe that it is a craft and at a high level it is a very, very advanced craft and if practiced that way, in many instances, one's perspective or personal opinion really isn't the issue. The issue is your ability to gather the facts and to produce them honestly. I do think much of the public is craving that, and I think there is a lot of survey information and a lot of anecdotal information that people would prefer that to the wildly polarized media that we are facing right now. I think it would help if there was more of that.

CARLOS MARTINEZ de la SERNA: Earlier you mentioned sometimes a lack of trust in journalists from the public. That is a critical thing definitely, and we are seeing that as a source of very serious problems and attacks and will undermine journalism as well.

Just to be specific, a few days ago I was listening to a journalist from El Salvador, which is going through a huge deterioration of the situation in the country in the last two years and was raided in the last weeks only. He was telling me a few things, but one is that El Salvador has not had a full opportunity to be a full democracy. It only has two decades of democracy. As a democracy was developing and getting to some potential, the current administration only communicates through social media and then through official communications including statements but made social media the main way of campaigning and getting in touch and engaging with the constituency. Journalists became definitely for many people a part of the problem. That is a huge issue when we are trying to defend them basically and defend their right to do their jobs.

There are many things we can think of about how to tackle these problems, but maybe going back to the conversation about the responsibilities of the administrations that may be relevant to the audience is let's start by referring to someone criticizing them with some civic tone, with some responsibility. Let's start from there. We don't talk about other institutions or people trying to improve at the end civic life in many ways by denigrating them and by demonizing them. Well, that is happening for journalists.

There are many structural problems we could try to tackle, but we can start by adopting a tone when we refer to media that is not about demonizing, which has another goal, which is not pointing to the media but undermining journalism, undermining its main goal, which is to uncover corruption and to uncover real political problems. So there is a clear political intention there, and I think we all need to be aware of that and try to engage with each other about any problems we might see. They are perfectly fine about criticizing them but with a civil tone, looking into how we make things better instead of tearing things down.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I wish that would happen. That is my wish.

But Stephen, you tweeted this article from CJR from the existential issue on Philip DeFranco and the power of news influencers. I am bringing this up because, Nick, you mentioned is there a definition? Stephen says this is a craft, this is a skill, and this is a profession. Yet here you come in with social media, and we talked about some of the problems with social media, and one of them is that anybody can say anything and tell you that it is the news. On YouTube there are so many examples of people having their own show where they regurgitate the news, and that is what people are watching. It's one of the reasons we put our stuff on YouTube, too. People watch YouTube.

This is where I think the confusion comes from reaching our goal of creating a more civil tone, creating trust and transparency when you have this hybrid form emerging of news influencer, and what is that, and what is the impact of that? How do we harness the positive energy of that, which is that people are watching news. That's fabulous. How do we harness that energy and yet put some sort of structure and professionalism on it? Can we? Can we do that internally? Can we then export that globally? Any ideas from your respective organizations?

STEPHEN ADLER: I am a big First Amendment advocate, and so I would be really loathe to start putting standards and restrictions. I think at least theoretically the marketplace of ideas, letting a lot of things out there, has really sustained us as a society. One can't be backward-looking. You have to look at it and embrace things that are coming. That YouTube influencer channel you were talking about I think has a larger audience than the network evening news shows, and that is just something that is happening.

So I go back to a couple of things. I often thought of what we did at Reuters as in some sense creating the raw material that everybody else is going to use in different ways because essentially Reuters is a news agency that has thousands of customers who are other news organizations, including really small ones and including YouTube news influencers. So if we and the Associated Press, and people like us can do our jobs right, then at least there is a factual basis from which people can be riffing and handling it all sorts of different ways. I think that is one point.

The other thing I want to come back to in detail or at least with more emphasis is that I have come to the conclusion that there is not a whole lot the media can do to limit misinformation and disinformation, because misinformation and disinformation is going out there in the billions and trillions of pieces of information, and the most that a news organization can control or even fact check is more in the thousands. Most stuff is going to go out there on media. The question is: Who does it go out to, and how well prepared are those people to understand what they are getting, to understand what propaganda is, to understand what facts are, and to understand whether it is coming from a real organization or it is a fake organization.

To me there is nothing more important we can be teaching in our schools, and I would say that globally, given the world we are now living in, the educational system is just archaic in terms of saying what the skills are. To me, given how many hours people spend consuming media every day, among the most important skills is the ability to understand what they are getting, what it means, where it's coming from, what are sources, and being able to sort what they are more comfortable feeling is legitimate and what isn't. I think that is the next frontier in being able to build an information society that we really want to build. So much more emphasis needs to be placed on that, the receiving end rather than the delivering end.

CARLOS MARTINEZ de la SERNA: Yes, totally, Stephen. I am not a fan at all of trying to regulate the communication channels in any way. I always mention that breathing space is required for the First Amendment to thrive, and that includes many forms of speech. I might disagree, but it is part of a healthy environment.

I will also alert on the dangers of trying to regulate them because we might see them as legitimate in some context, but we definitely have seen in others being used to attack journalism. What you do here, this is my attempt reign in this conversation, when we talk about press freedom this is a global context, so we cannot think of just one thing. Everything is connected, and to be more honest and also cautious in order to assign responsibilities in some specifics.

Also, when it is a regulation and things like that, what you can use here with maybe potential benefits definitely will be used in other contexts to stifle and attack journalists. We have seen that Internet regulations, Internet distractions, Internet content takedowns, and things like that. That is already happening. It is already a problem.

I think what professional media organizations are trying to do is very useful because many are in general trying to make more transparent the process so people understand what is behind that journalist's piece. I think that is very useful. It is complex and also involves many things including source protection and journalist protection as well, but it is useful, and there are some initiatives there to help understand the basic information about a photograph, for example, or a piece. Many are collaborating and I am optimistic about some of those creating practices across organizations that may help the end user better understand what is the journalistic product.

But at the end journalists can flourish in many contexts. A YouTube influencer can at some point be critical in a process and can do tremendous work, and I am thinking about many independent journalists that only have those platforms to reach the public and get to them. Again, I think it is about all of us, that we generally want a healthy and safe environment for journalism, to learn to work together—and that includes tech platforms—on how to improve the news ecosystem, to make it work again to the end user because this is about the right of the public to get the news. It is not a privilege to anyone. It is about the right of the public which is a conduit in this process, but we need certain rights in the environment to be able to do so.

TATIANA SERAFIN: With that I would like for you to give one ask to the Biden-Harris Administration. If we could get on the phone right now to advocate for press freedom, what would be the one ask? Would it be stop harassing Assange? Would it be to pardon Snowden? What would be the one ask?

STEPHEN ADLER: For me it would be more systemic than any single thing. I think appointing a very high level press freedom envoy who would travel with the secretary of state or travel with the president and bring that level of priority to this issue would be enormously important. Having a press freedom conference that the administration was actively leading could be a part of that and maybe a way to kick that off. So I really think it is not only making a statement, but then day to day having somebody in there who is well-placed and who is advocating for press freedom around the world. I think that would be my number-one ask.

CARLOS MARTINEZ de la SERNA: That would also be my number-one ask. It is not that we have shared a lot of the work investigating what is happening in the U.S., but why. I think we all believe this is a critical point to try to turn things around basically not only for the United States but the global press freedom environment, trying to bring back democracies where we are not trying anymore and trying to encourage a new human rights-based environment for the global community starting with press freedom, which we believe is a foundational principle, a foundational right for all of the others. Having this special envoy would make that very explicit.

Other administrations helped build the structural changes, how the United States addresses and defends human rights around the world. I think this is about approaching press freedom the same way. It is about making it not possible anymore for any administration, regardless of where they are coming from or what they think, not to have press freedom as a central principle of their foreign policy. I think we need to be very clear and intentional about building for the future.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much. We will get those asks right to Biden-Harris. We so appreciate your time today, and of course the work of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and CPJ and you both, thank you for your time. We hope to have you back in a few months to see if maybe we have that envoy.


CARLOS MARTINEZ de la SERNA: Thank you very much.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you very much.

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