As the Secretary General of an international press freedom organization, I welcomed United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement commemorating World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd, 2017. It is of the utmost importance to hear support for a free press coming from the United States’ top diplomat, no matter the administration. As Secretary Tillerson writes, journalists are truly the “guardians of democratic values and ideals,” and having an administration that opens its doors to the media and, by extension, the public is what allows the U.S. to uphold the freedoms established in the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, Secretary Tillerson’s recent actions and his May 3rd statement lack alignment. He writes that “societies built on good governance, strong civil society, and an open and free media are more prosperous, stable and secure.” However, instead of allowing for an “open and free” media, Mr. Tillerson has time and again restricted press access to the inner workings of his actions as Secretary of State.
Since the new administration took office in January, there were no regularly held daily press briefings at the State Department up until last week, when it was announced that briefings would now be held twice a week by newly appointed State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert. Yet Mr. Tillerson continues to make a clear effort to avoid interaction with the media, and often walks away from questions without acknowledging or answering them.
During Mr. Tillerson’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia, American journalists were excluded from his press conference—a country in which three journalists and eight netizens are currently imprisoned. One such journalist is Raif Badawi, a Saudi activist who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years of imprisonment, five of which have already been served.
On another occasion, Secretary Tillerson did not include the press when traveling to Russia where he met with President Vladimir Putin behind closed doors with no reporters present. In April, Russian journalist Nikolai Andrushchenko, known for his reporting of government corruption and organized crime, was beaten to death by unidentified assailants in St. Petersburg.
According to Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2017 barometer, 21 journalists and 82 netizens are currently imprisoned in China. Yet, when Secretary Tillerson traveled to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping, he refused to bring a press corps with him.
When questioned about his lack of a press corps, Tillerson has said, “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.” That may be so, but it contradicts his words honoring World Press Freedom Day and violates the intentions of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the First Amendment nearly 230 years ago.
The lack of information coming from Secretary Tillerson and the State Department could be perceived as threatening due to the amount of power that the State Department holds, and its ability to abuse it when behind closed doors. If the State Department “supports the free flow of information” as Mr. Tillerson has said, why is the democratic tradition of allowing media access vanishing before us?
Anti-press rhetoric and a lack of press access have increasingly become standard under this administration. This creates a dangerous climate for journalists to do their jobs and has the potential to encourage verbal and physical attacks against the media.
Journalists are being assaulted, imprisoned, and persecuted all over the world. Access to information by both the press and the public is crucial. As the Secretary of State of one of the world’s leading democracies, Mr. Tillerson has a responsibility to set an example for both the United States and for those abroad.
Christophe Deloire is the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)