Promoting Press Freedom -- U.S. Spends Over $100 Million Per Year

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. Today, the U.S. Government spends more than $100 million each year to promote the values of the First Amendment across the world.

This is a noble endeavor, but is this U.S. taxpayer money used wisely?

Freedom House, which tracks press freedom around the world, tells a sorry story of dozens of countries where the press is tightly controlled by autocratic governments. Many of the countries with the greatest media restrictions are also among the world's most violent and most corrupt. These, for example, include Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. has expended tens of billions of aid funds in recent years.

However, there are many countries -- from Central and Eastern Europe through Latin America, East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa -- that have emerged from civil wars and overthrown dictators. These countries are struggling to establish democracy. U.S. foreign aid funds are being deployed in a number of them to strengthen press freedom and educate governments on how to best achieve this.

Telling It Straight

A new and fascinating report strives to shed light, in particular, on training top politicians and official to work with the media to inform the public of government operations and policies. The report, published by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and written by CIMA former director, Marguerite Hoxie Sullivan, is: "Telling It Straight: How Trustworthy Government Information Promotes Better Media."

Sullivan is constantly traveling, from Saudi Arabia to Burma and to many other countries, to assist governments to learn how to communicate publicly and to work with the media. Her report highlights the enormous gap that exists so often in so many governments between public rhetoric in support of informing citizens and actually doing it.

Sometimes, government leaders just distrust the press and see it as an adversary, not a partner. Sometimes, the press is derided by top officials as just an irresponsible source of rumors. Frequently, presidents and prime ministers have no idea what the roles should be of government spokesmen and, accordingly, low-level civil servants are given these positions without access to top officials and cabinet ministers.

U.S. Program Changes Needed

But not all the blame should be heaped on governments who claim to be building transparency, but failing to communicate well. Programs might be significantly improved, argues Sullivan, if changes are made in approaches by the lead U.S. agencies on this front -- USAID's Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance , the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), and its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

One of the largest problems, however, is that donor support often is too short-lived, and programs don't take root as support is withdrawn too early. Put another way, the U.S. agencies providing funds are just too impatient, seeking results and sustainable changes far too fast. It takes time for core cultural changes to evolve in many governments as they move from secrecy to transparency, and as they learn to reach out to journalists, rather than avoid them.

Linking Programs to Good Governance

This relates to another problem in the approaches of the U.S. aid agencies, which is the failure at times to place these programs within a broader anti-corruption framework, which would secure greater U.S. diplomatic pressure and greater civil society support in some countries. Further, Sullivan says a holistic approach is essential and the report states,"When evaluating strengths and weaknesses of the media in a country, donors should also analyze government communication capacity building and laws and regulations that are punitive to an independent press, such as criminal libel. Subsequent program design should encompass all three."

Marguerite H. Sullivan is an exceptional media expert, who established and directed CIMA from 2006 to 2013 and has been involved in assessing, training and advising on open communications and transparency programs in more than 40 countries. Her report needs to be read and her recommendations need to lead to policy changes at USAID and the Department of State that ensure greater press freedom and governmental transparency around the world.