World Press Freedom Day: Protecting Journalists and the Vital Flow of Information

A man lays flowers next to a photograph of James Foley, the freelance journalist killed by the IS group, during a memorial se
A man lays flowers next to a photograph of James Foley, the freelance journalist killed by the IS group, during a memorial service in Irbil, 350 kilometers (220 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Aug.t 24, 2014. Foley, the U.S. journalist slain by Islamic State militants after being held in captivity for nearly two years, was remembered in a small ceremony in Irbil on Sunday. (AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic)

Before I went to work at the State Department, I spent more than 30 years as a journalist. But I cannot remember a time when journalists and journalism were under greater threat. Once, journalists were sacrosanct and protected; now they are targeted and hounded and imprisoned with impunity. So far this year, 27 journalists have been killed, including the grisly beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who once worked for me at TIME. Last year, more than 220 journalists were jailed around the world. Freedom House's annual report found that global press freedom in 2014 had descended to its lowest point in a decade. Being a reporter has become one of the world's most dangerous professions.

At a time when the supply of information seems unlimited and overwhelming, journalists and journalism are being challenged like never before. It seems contradictory, but it makes a perverse kind of sense. Despots and autocrats and terrorists are threatened by the free flow of information, and they are targeting not only the messengers but the message. Restrictive press-laws are on the rise. Government-controlled and manipulated media is becoming the norm rather than the exception. The free flow of information is the enemy of tyranny.

But governments and non-state actors are not only restricting the free flow of information, they are manufacturing their own versions of reality and dispensing it as though it were news. There is a global epidemic of misinformation and propaganda. This is not an information war, but a war on truth -- on the very idea that there is a reality that can be verified. Their goal is not so much to make people accept their distorted version of the truth, but to make people question whether there is any truth at all.

The first priority for us at the State Department is free, unfettered, uncensored access to information. The remedy for misinformation is often just more information. The American Founders believed that freedom and free access to information were inextricably linked. They understood that a free press was the foundation of other freedoms. Thomas Jefferson said a nation could never be ignorant and free. Despots and terrorists thrive on ignorance and perish from freedom of expression.

On World Press Freedom Day, we pay special honor to the value of a free press and those journalists who are both the symbols and brave practitioners of it. The State Department's Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists has welcomed more than 1,000 international journalists to the U.S. over the last ten years to examine the link between independent media and democracy. Our annual "Free the Press" campaign profiles journalists and media outlets who are censored, attacked, and threatened. The State's Department's bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor details the state of media freedom around the world in its human rights reports and supports more than 40 international programs focused on investigative reporting, tools, and training for journalists, and increasing diversity in media. For example, DRL's SAFE initiative provides state-of-the art security training for journalists around the world.

From urging the release of the Washington Posts' Jason Rezaian in Iran to combating the legal restrictions imposed on journalists, we will work to protect and extend press freedom around the world. Information is the lifeblood of freedom and the ability to make informed choices for yourself, your community and your nation. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence almost 250 years ago, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You can't agree to anything without the free access to information upon which that consent is based. That's the message of World Press Freedom Day.