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Statement at the "21st Century Threats to Media Freedom" Conference

Barry F. Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC
May 1, 2007

Good morning. Thank you to Freedom House and the BBG for organizing this important discussion on a critical component of President Bush's Freedom agenda.

Secretary Rice has said "there is no more important pillar of democracy than a free and active press."

The ingredients for a healthy democracy are free and fair elections, a government, which is accountable and responsive to its people, and a vibrant and open civil society.

The press's role is critical: The press is a place to debate ideas, to vent frustrations, to call attention to the needs of those who are overlooked in society, and to hold government accountable.

For these very reasons, a free press is subject to repression, restriction, and abuse by those governments who maintain their grip on power through denial of free expression, inclusion, and demands for accountability.

We documented in our 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices a global trend towards administrative and legislative restrictions on press freedom.

Unfortunately, this trend appears to be worsening with recent examples of direct, aggressive, and sometimes violent action against the press. We have charges brought against an Uzbek journalist for receiving a democracy grant from the U.S. Embassy. In Russia, there was the raid by police on the Moscow offices of Internews. And there is the raid by Krygyz police on the Freedom House-supported opposition printing press in Bishkek. And, of course, the murder last year of Anna Politskaya.

These are unacceptable actions. In addition to speaking out when they occur, and demanding reforms, we must work together - the Administration, Congress, our allies, and our NGO and academic partners - to fortify the fourth pillar when it is under threat.

My bureau, for example, currently implements $18.5 million in press freedom programs in 20 countries, to train journalists, produce independent programs, and build the capacity and viability of free media.

When we released the Human Rights report, we called 2006 the year of the pushback. Our panel today will cover three countries which embody that pushback: Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

In these countries we see the regimes using their clout to pressure the media. "Managed News," like "Managed Democracy" is symptomatic of a slide from the rule of law to the rule by law, from rules to ensure accountability to rules to ensure impunity.

This is a direct threat to their democratic systems, and it robs their people of freedom's promise.

Let me introduce each panelist, and give them each a few minutes to provide an overview of the situation in these countries. We will then have a discussion and a question and answer session, to focus on suggestions for further advancing our efforts to ensure and protect a free press worldwide.

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