Remarks on Press Freedom

As prepared for delivery

Remarks on Press Freedom

Mr. President, I rise before you to express the importance of freedom of the press, both around the world and here at home. Journalists take risks to tell the stories of war, genocide, hunger, poverty and corruption around world, while facing unprecedented rates of intimidation and violence. Freedom of expression is the bedrock of our democracy, but we must not take it for granted. It is how we hold ourselves to the standards set by the Founders, and how we protect our institutions from falling into traps set by those who seek to abuse power.

Earlier this year, I introduced S. Res. 501, a resolution recognizing threats to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, with Senators Marco Rubio and Ron Wyden. I want to thank my colleagues for their leadership on this important issue. This resolution highlights the importance of freedom of the press, condemns attacks against journalists and reaffirms press freedom as a priority for the U.S. government. This resolution is in honor of the 46 journalists killed in 2017 for their reporting; for the 262 journalists imprisoned around the world last year; and for the 21 journalists jailed in 2017 for “false news,” more than doubling 2016’s record.

These journalists are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who are putting their lives and freedom on the line to shine a light on some of the world’s toughest stories. I’d like to tell the story of one of the journalists who lost his life last year, bravely reporting from a conflict area: Chris Allen. I want to acknowledge Chris’s parents, Joyce Krajian and John Allen, are in Washington today.

Chris grew up in Narberth, PA and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Chris’s parents say that he was an explorer from an early age, with a keen interest in history. While pursuing his Masters degree at Oxford, he was encouraged to go to those places where history was being made. Chris embraced this calling, becoming a freelance journalist first in eastern Ukraine, where he embedded with pro-Ukrainian forces, reporting for outlets like the Independent and the Guardian, to help give his audience a glimpse of the conflict up close.

His mother, Joyce, and father, John, have shared this memory of Chris: “This desire to bring to light untold stories from uncovered regions of the world and the plights of their peoples - that’s what motivated Chris.  He wanted to know the thoughts and feelings of those encountering conflict firsthand.”

After three years in Ukraine, Chris decided to embed with the South Sudan opposition forces near the Ugandan border. On August 26, 2017, we understand that Chris walked overnight with these fighters and two other journalists to the town of Kaya. Chris was killed shortly after dawn, while photographing a gun battle between opposition and government forces. Chris was just twenty six years old.

In the early years of his professional life, Chris had already committed himself to the vital job of covering dangerous places and exposing the stories of vulnerable people whose countries were embroiled in war. In the year that has passed since his death, despite commitments from the South Sudanese government to investigate, Joyce and John have no official information about how he was killed, and no one has been held accountable for the loss of their son. They have seen South Sudanese government officials smear his reputation and threaten other foreign journalists with the same fate. This is unthinkable to any parent.

Chris Allen’s parents have more questions than answers. Chris and others like him have lost their lives in pursuit of the truth, with no accountability or justice. Other journalists sit in prison today for daring to speak truth to power. We have a responsibility to advance the core American value of freedom of expression and continue to serve as an example to the world.

As I mentioned earlier, our bipartisan resolution reaffirms press freedom as a priority for the United States. What exactly does that mean?

First, advocating for media freedom should be a feature of U.S. government interactions with other governments where the media is censored, silenced and threatened. I have had tough conversations, as I know my colleagues have, with foreign government officials about human rights and the rule of law over the years. I know it can be difficult to advance these values while also cooperating on security or political issues. But we must. Whether it’s advocating for the release of the two Reuters journalists detained under antiquated laws in Myanmar, pressing for an investigation into Chris Allen’s death, or pushing for reforms to allow media workers to operate more freely, the U.S. government must be consistent and persistent.

But perhaps more importantly, we must model the respect for free journalism and empowered journalists here at home. Investigative journalism helps hold accountable government officials, elected representatives, business leaders, and others. It exposes fraud and waste and corruption, which corrode our society. It helps us connect with the men and women in uniform serving our Nation overseas and understand the conflicts in which they fight. It shows us the atrocities of terrorist groups like ISIS and the abuses of dictatorial regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s. Journalists amplify the voices of the most vulnerable among us and provides for us a window into the homes and hearts of people a world away.

Instead of respecting these professionals, President Trump has called them the “enemy of the people.” When we hear powerful voices denigrate tough reporting as “fake news” or bar reporters from doing their jobs by blocking access, we must condemn it. Reporters, writers, photographers and media workers in the U.S. have not been intimidated and will continue to carry the torch of core American values. On both sides of the aisle, we have a responsibility to rebuke the anti-press narrative that the President is advancing every time he disparages the press. This narrative is not only antithetical to the values our Founders laid out in the Bill of Rights, but it is dangerous. 

Mr. President, I urge my colleagues to support S. Res. 501 this week, and to speak up for media freedoms every day.