Facts Are a Dictator's Worst Enemy; and a Journalist's Best Friend

There has perhaps never been a time when we needed to speak truth not only to power, but to the millions of people who are connected in our wired world. That is the role of journalists -- my chosen field. I have never regarded that role as morally neutral.
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This post is derived from my remarks upon receiving the United Nations Association's Leo Nevas Prize.

This is a great honor -- and one I really am humbled to receive. All I can say is that I will use the Leo Nevas Prize -- and Leo's wonderful example of a life well lived in the service of Human Rights -- as a spur to do more.

We are living an exciting and dangerous moment in history. We are witnessing Arabs from Tunisia to Syria, and the nations in between, rise up and claim their human rights and dignity.

There has perhaps never been a time when we needed to speak truth not only to power, but to the millions of people who are connected in our wired world. That is the role of journalists -- my chosen field. I never regarded that role as morally neutral.

For a number of years I have fought for journalist's rights as the only real safeguard against demagogues and dictators. In 2000 I marched with the people of Belgrade against Milosevic. As a member of Human Rights Watch I have spoken and written against American use of so called "enhanced" interrogation. The argument cannot be about whether torture works or not. It is about who we are. Americans do not torture. It's that simple.

"Comment is free, but facts are sacred!" a great British editor, once said. That has never been more relevant and urgently true than today, as new technologies are making "citizen journalists" out of anybody with an iPhone. It is a powerful tool. In the wrong hands a dangerous one. The same dazzling technology is available to demagogues and extremists to spread their version of reality. Electronic narcissism is also an unappealing byproduct of the wired world. I did not become a journalist in order to share my every impulse with the world.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that it was not a million tweets, but a vegetable vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his cart and license -- his livelihood -- which set off the demonstrations in Tunis, which two weeks later, forced the demise of President Ben Ali, soon to be followed by President Mubarak... with perhaps more to come. It was, ironically enough, when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet that crowds poured into the streets of Cairo to get the news.

As a child I witnessed the Hungarian Revolution, which began as a small demonstration and within 24 hours exploded into a popular uprising. So my point is this: let's credit the basic human urge for dignity and human rights -- an urge that knows no boundaries nor cultures. Of course the technology helps. But it is the human impulse for a right to earn a decent living, have leaders who are accountable to us, not to themselves, to right to say what we like, and pray the way we like -- that is what it means to be human, and that is what we are witnessing today in the Middle East.

It is the bravest of the brave on whose behalf I make interventions through my work at the Committee to Protect Journalists. From Moscow to Teheran to Karachi -- they lay everything on the line, not by sharing with us their morning coffee choice, but to expose the corrupt and the cruel. I have sat with them in Turkish prisons, and in Russian hospitals, always in awe at their breathtaking courage. I do this partly because there was no such organization when the Hungarian Secret Police arrested my mother and father and sentenced them to long prison terms, merely for the crime of being good reporters. Then, as now, facts upset dictators. They can even upset countries whose self-image can clash with the truth. (Recall how as Americans we recoiled from the images of torture at American hands in Abu Ghraib). But facts are sacred.

Our growing ignorance of history -- even recent history -- also makes it easier for demagogues and fanatics to gain ground. People die. The past does not. Our duty is to understand it. If I have made a modest contribution to the cause Leo Nevas championed it has been in the choice of subjects to write about.

I try in my books to connect today's world with our recent past -- a past that should ring a warning bell, alerting us to the ever-present danger of intolerance. In my book on Raoul Wallenberg I focus on the difference one brave and stubborn man can make in standing up to murderous hate mongers. Wallenberg also stood up to those too cautious bureaucrats who -- in their way can also lead millions to their death, by blindly following inhuman policies. (in this instance during Nazi occupied Hungary, but also in our own State Department's blind refusal to help Jewish refugees).

In The Great Escape I chronicle the self-destructiveness of states that close their borders (and hearts) to minorities.

In my most recent work, Enemies of the People, I burrowed into the files of a police state to reveal how ordinary, decent people are forced to become tools of a terror state, by the most powerful weapon of all: fear.

Facts are the most potent of all weapons, and dictators know that. Look at how the Iranian demagogue Ahmadinejad freely distorts history, denies the Holocaust, and how devastating his lies would be, in the absence of documentation to prove he is a fabricator.

In closing, please allow me to say a few words about Richard Holbrooke, who would be so proud of this honor. A few lessons I learned in the 17 years I was lucky enough to share with him:

  • American leadership is still essential. And Richard did not mean just military leadership. Richard believed in the primary importance of American values as a force for good in the world. He joined American power to moral passion and decency.
  • He never let bureaucracies -- nor process -- hinder his goal.
  • He thought it was ok to step on some big toes if lives were at stake.
  • His brand of diplomacy had a human face -- it was built on trust and respect -- not assertion of might. But if that failed he was fearless about summoning power. You break down barriers by sitting across from your bitterest foe -- which is what Richard did in the Balkans. When he was given the Afpak assignment he insisted the Presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan come to Washington together. Once you know your adversary sit down with him face to face -- it's much tougher to demonize him.

And he always put the responsibility to save lives, ahead of any other consideration -- even the responsibility to authority.

Thank you for this wonderful award -- which will spur me to follow the twin examples of Leo Nevas and Richard Holbrooke.

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