Ambassador Harrington’s Opening Remarks at Investigative Journalism Workshop

Welcome and thank you all for being here today. It is exciting to see such strong interest in deepening and broadening your skills as journalists. I also want to thank Honorable Minister Khotso Letsatsi for joining us today. Honorable Minister, you and I have spoken about the challenges facing the media in Lesotho, and about your own background as a journalist. I look forward to hearing your insights this morning. I would also like to thank the Media Institute of Southern Africa Lesotho for partnering with us on this training. The work you do in advocating for Basotho journalists and building their capacity is extremely important.

The U.S. Embassy is proud to support this workshop on investigative journalism because we believe that media freedom is vital to a thriving democracy. As my boss, Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “People everywhere count on a free press to keep us informed, to hold leaders accountable, to filter fact from fiction, and to unmask false narratives masquerading as truth.”

A free press helps citizens call attention to the issues they care about, and it helps governments understand how their actions are being perceived.

Freedom of expression and the press are key elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that seminal document adopted by the international community 67 years ago.

Freedom of the press is also a critically important value for Americans. There’s a reason it is identified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Our Constitution protects even the most offensive and controversial speech. I’ve had lots of conversations with friends from other countries who take umbrage at critical things they’ve read in their own newspapers. A comment I typically hear is “But they shouldn’t criticize our president.” In response, I’ll note that our president and other leaders are often criticized in the U.S. press, sometimes in language that many people consider offensive or insulting. But that’s the price of being in public life in a democracy. It hasn’t hurt our democracy one bit; in fact, some would argue that it’s part of what makes our democracy so vibrant.

History is full of cautionary tales showing that when governments try to limit citizens’ right to talk about certain topics, important conversations are pushed into the shadows. Allowing individuals to express their opinions — no matter how much the government and other citizens may disagree with them — promotes transparency and social stability.

At the same time, protecting the right of expression does not mean one has to agree with or endorse everything people say or write. As Americans, we believe the best antidote to offensive language is dialogue that provides an alternative, more dispassionate, point of view. In other words, the best way to counter offensive speech is not with regulation or punishment but with more speech.

A free and vibrant press is essential in a democratic society. At the same time, journalists have a fundamental obligation to get the story right and to hold themselves to the highest professional standards. Of course journalists want to write stories that are interesting because you want people to read your stories, right? I understand that. Remember, though, it is critical that the stories be accurate, unbiased, and fully supported by the facts.

At the end of the day, the better you do your jobs, the more confidence the public will have in you and your reporting, and the better informed your readers will be.

And that’s the focus of this week’s workshop — investigative journalism and media professionalization. I am delighted that Lucinda Fleeson will be leading the workshop – as you heard from Julie, she has extensive experience in investigative journalism and has conducted these kinds of workshops across the globe. She has also written a book (for the International Center for Journalists) titled 10 Steps to Investigative Journalism. Welcome and thank you for being here for this important training.

This week, you will learn how to strengthen your efforts to collect, report, edit, and disseminate objective, balanced information. You will be encouraged, and given an opportunity, to examine all facets and angles of a story, to carefully check the facts, and to base stories on multiple verifiable sources, rather than a single source or speculation. The ultimate goal, of course, is to help you improve the quality and objectivity of the information you present to the public. I know this week will be intense, but I hope you will enjoy it and benefit from it.

This workshop is only the latest example of our ongoing support for media development and capacity-building in Lesotho.

Just over the last year, the Embassy’s Public Affairs Section has hosted several briefing sessions on different topics for Basotho journalists. The Embassy also sponsors exchanges specifically for journalists, to give them the opportunity to share their experiences and challenges with counterparts from around the world and to learn more about the U.S. media environment. At this moment, a presenter from Lesotho TV is in the U.S. on one of the most prestigious media-related exchange programs, the Edward Murrow Leadership Program. Last year a journalist from Public Eye participated in the same program. In 2014, we supported the travel of a reporter from the Lesotho Times to Washington, DC to cover the first-ever U.S.-African Leaders Summit.

And earlier this year a presenter from Ultimate Radio was one of six Basotho selected to participate in the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, after which she spent a six-week internship at Voice of America. Just a quick public service announcement here; we are currently accepting applications for next year’s YALI fellowships and I encourage you to consider applying.

I want to close with a quote from the American investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, who once said, “The smarter the journalists are,the better off society is. For to a degree, people read the press to inform themselves — and the better the teacher, the better the student body.”

With those words in mind, I wish you an informative and productive week and I look forward to reading and hearing your stories in the future.