Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius on the State of Press Freedom Worldwide

Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius on the State of Press Freedom Worldwide

QUESTION:  The only thing better than having the Secretary of State on the screen is having the Secretary of State in person.  We’re very happy that Secretary of State Blinken could join us today to celebrate, commemorate World Press Freedom Day.

In our business, we like to cover the story; we worry that we’re becoming the story.  We’ve had 67 journalists and media workers who were killed last year.  We have about 570 who are in prison around the world in 30 different countries.  We have a problem.  And I want to ask you about the case that we’re focused on most immediately right now, which is that of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gerschkovich.  Tell us about the efforts the State Department has made to get Evan free, and – in particular I’m curious whether you’ve been able to talk —

AUDIENCE:  Excuse us.  We can’t use this day without calling for the freedom of Julian Assange.

STAFF:  Come on, you got to go.  Come on, you go to go.

AUDIENCE:  The Biden administration must (inaudible) Julian Assange.  Stop the extradition request of Julian Assange.

AUDIENCE:  What about – two hours and not one word about (inaudible).

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Take it easy.  Take it easy.  Take it easy guys.

AUDIENCE:  Not one word about journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh, who was murdered —

QUESTION:  So —

AUDIENCE:  — by the Israeli occupation forces in Palestine.

QUESTION:  So —

AUDIENCE:  Not one word about Julian Assange.

QUESTION:  We’re here to celebrate freedom of expression, and we just experienced it.  Let me continue, Mr. Secretary, to ask you about Evan Gerschkovich and your efforts to get him free.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, David it’s very good to be here, to be with you.  This is an important day.  It’s a somber day, for the reasons that my alter ego cited just a few minutes ago.  We know that journalists around the world are increasingly under siege – under siege in a whole variety of ways.  That’s now manifested itself once again very powerfully in Evan’s detention and incarceration, in Moscow – profoundly, unjustly – for doing his job.  We’re intensely engaged with the Russians to seek his freedom, to seek his immediate release – short of that, just to get what Russia’s obligated to provide, which is consular access, which they’ve done once but have yet to repeat.

Our Ambassador Lynne Tracy had a chance to be with Evan about ten days ago; found him of incredibly strong of mind and spirit, which is a very powerful thing in this situation.  But we have a country in the case of Russia that like a handful of other countries around the world is wrongfully detaining people, using them as political pawns, using them as leverage in a practice that is absolutely unacceptable and that we’re working both broadly to try to deter – but also at the same time to try to secure the release of those who are being unjustly detained.

QUESTION:  And let met ask, Mr. Secretary, whether you’ve talked directly to your Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, about this.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I have.  I spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov shortly after Evan was detained.  I haven’t spoken to him since.  I made clear the imperative of releasing Evan.  I made clear the imperative of getting consular access.  We did get consular access after that.  We have a channel that President Biden and President Putin established, some time ago, to try to work on these cases, so we’re engaged.  I wish I could say that in this moment there was a clear way forward.  I – we don’t have that in this moment, but it’s something that we’re working every single day.

QUESTION:  You’ve done something unusual in these cases, which is to impose the Levinson Act and declare the FSB, the Russian secret police, as a target of your sanctions because of wrongful detention.  Tell us about that, whether that was a difficult choice to make, and what specific leverage that’s going to give you in getting freedom for Evan.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, the Levinson Act is an important tool.  It gives us different and new authorities to try to go at those who are directly engaged in wrongfully detaining journalists or wrongfully detaining our citizens.  It includes things like travel bans, like asset freezes.  And, look, I think it’s clear that in some cases the individuals who are sanctioned may not be planning to travel to the United States anyway; we have to acknowledge that – or many not have assets here.  But our hope is that by applying it, we can have a chilling affect on those who would engage in these practices going forward.

There’s something else, though, that’s going on.  For a country like Russia that has already severely isolated itself by its aggression against Ukraine, these acts only further its isolation.  Increasingly, the message is don’t come here, don’t travel here; whoever you are, you risk being pulled off the street and thrown in jail – and that is only going to deepen Russia’s isolation.  As we speak, to my knowledge there are no reporters of American nationality in Russia.  There are about 20 Russians who are formally accredited here with state media organizations.  But if this is applied across the board, and you see more and more countries, and the nationals of more and more countries saying “I’m not going there,” that is simply going to further detach Russia from the world, and that is profoundly not in Russia’s interest.

QUESTION:  As someone who has personally been sanctioned by Russia, this has meaning for me.  I want to ask you about another Washington Post colleague, and that is our contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza.  He is not a U.S. citizen, but his wife is.  He’s been a permanent resident —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  — in Washington and his two children – his children are citizens.  Why isn’t he included in your declarations about wrongful detention, which would have some force in leaving the 25-year – the harsh, harsh sentence that was just imposed on him?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So first, we deplore what is being done to him.  Second, when it comes to determinations of wrongful detention, it’s a process.  And there are clear criteria, but it’s also true that these cases evolve.  And as we learn more, as we fully understand the circumstances, the details as we are able to look at how people similarly situated are being treated, that – all of that goes into a determination of wrongful detention.  So these determinations are not typically made immediately; there is a process and criteria that we apply.  And that does not in any way prejudge what we might do coming up as we continue to look at that case and others.

QUESTION:  So, just because it’s important, obviously, to his family and to those of us here at the Post, I understand you to be saying that the State Department is still examining whether you might –

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s correct.

QUESTION:  — declare him as wrongfully detained.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That is correct.

QUESTION:  And when do you think you might make that decision?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I don’t want to put a timeframe on it.  Again, it’s something that we’re looking at constantly.

The other thing I’d say is this, because I think it’s important:  We’re trying to fight back and push back around the world to help journalists, who – in one way or another, are facing intimidation, coercion, persecution, prosecution, surveillance.  We have a fund, a technology fund, to try to get technology in the hands of journalists and other civil society advocates to make sure that they can continue even in a surveillance state to communicate with each other and to be connected to the outside world.  We have a defamation fund, because increasingly what we’re seeing in country after country is the use of lawfare, trying to put journalists and put media enterprises out of business by litigation.  We now have a defamation fund that journalists and independent media can tap into to help defend themselves.  We have a program to try to help journalists protect themselves – physically, or in cyberspace – from intimidation and coercion by states.  We contribute tens of millions of dollars into a media freedom fund for independent media to bolster their capacity to continue doing business even in very difficult places.  And we’re part of a Media Freedom Coalition, about 52 countries, pooling resources, pooling information, sharing expertise and knowledge with journalists and independent media enterprises around the world.

So, it’s not just a matter of putting a spotlight on this, as we do every day.  It’s not just a matter of engaging country after country where journalists are being in one way or another mistreated.  We’re actually trying to get tools in the hands of journalists and independent media so that they can push back, so that they can sustain what they’re doing.

QUESTION:  We’re grateful, obviously, for the support of all countries in the United Nations, the United States leading among them, in recognizing World Press Freedom Day and taking this issue seriously, as Secretary-General Guterres did in his comments this week.

I want to ask you briefly about another Washington Post colleage – I wish this list was shorter – and that’s Austin Tice, who was a contributor to The Washington Post, who’s been missing in Syria now for many years.  His mother, Debra, told CBS News this week that she wants to see the same urgency and commitment that she hears from top levels trickle down through the State Department, throughout the administration, and that the assurances that have been given that her son will someday be free be realized.  What would be your response to Debra Tice, Austin’s mother?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well first, David, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Debra Tice on a couple of occasions.  I can’t begin to tell you my admiration for her, the extraordinary courage that she and the family have shown, the resilience that they’ve shown.  I can’t begin to put myself in her shoes – almost 11 years now that Austin has been taken and separated from her, from his family, from his friends.  And her absolute determination, relentless determination to do everything in her power to push for his freedom is beyond admirable.  So I’m really – I think humility in the face of that is what really comes to mind.

And I know when you’re in the shoes of someone like Debra Tice – and unfortunately we have 60 or so American families who have their loved ones wrongfully detained somewhere around the world; I’ve met virtually or in person with every single one of them – it’s incredibly frustrating, because you want to see something happening every single day.  And often we’re engaged in efforts to get people home that we can’t talk about even with the families.

What I can say is this:  We’re extensively engaged with regard to Austin – engaged with Syria, engaged with third countries – seeking to find a way to get him home.  And we’re not going to relent until we do.

QUESTION:  Let’s – as more Arab countries establish diplomatic relations with Syria, that’s one hope that we have, is that that leverage will be used to get freedom for him.

Before we leave this general topic, I want to ask you a question from a member of our audience, which is a good one.  This is from Ramunas Bigalus (ph) in Connecticut.  The question is:  “Should the State Department warn all journalists to avoid travel to Russia and Belarus?”  Given the situation you described, given the threats that are so obvious, should the State Department be saying flatly, “We don’t think you should go at all”?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, the truth is we’ve instituted something in our travel warnings – a D indicator, as we call it – to make sure that every American who is contemplating travel to a certain group of countries understands that they engage in this practice of wrongful detention, so that at least people are put on notice.

Now, I recognize journalists are in a different category.  It’s your job to shine a light everywhere in the world, including in the darkest corners.  And that comes with extraordinary risk.  So yes, as a government we can certainly recommend that anyone with a U.S. passport strongly reconsider traveling to a handful of countries that are known to do this, and we’d say the same thing to journalists.  But I also recognize that you feel that you have a job to do, it’s an invaluable job, and ultimately journalists have to balance that risk, calculate that risk.

QUESTION:  I have to say we are in the business of ignoring those risks, and going to places where people tell us not to go, and I don’t think that’s going to change.  I hope it doesn’t.  So we wouldn’t be doing our jobs as journalists – I wouldn’t – if I didn’t ask a little bit about the news of the day, because there’s a lot.  And I want to start with the new overnight from the Kremlin, accusing Ukraine of having tried to assassinate President Vladimir Putin with a drone strike on the Kremlin near his residence.  Ukraine has denied doing this.

I want to ask the question this way:  What is the United States position on such attacks, on leadership during this war by Ukraine or other combatants?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, I’ve seen the reports.  I can’t in any way validate them; we simply don’t know.  Second, I would take anything out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt.  So, let’s see – we’ll see what the facts are.  And it’s really hard to comment or speculate on this without really knowing what the facts are.

More generally, as I’ve said and as we’ve said, when it comes to Ukraine – which is under daily assault – and not just its incredibly courageous military forces, but its citizens – its men, women, and children – being assaulted on a daily basis by this Russian aggression, being bombed out of their homes, their apartments, and their streets, children killed, families torn apart – well, we leave it to Ukraine to decide how it’s going to defend itself, and how it’s going to try to get back the territory that’s been seized from it illegally by Russia over the past 14 months and going back to 2014, back to then.

QUESTION:  So to clarify, if Ukraine decided on its own to strike back in Russian territory, the United States would not criticize them?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Again, these are decisions for Ukraine to make about how it’s going  to defend itself, how it’s going to get its territory back, how it’s going to restore its territorial integrity and its sovereignty.

QUESTION:  We carried a story this morning that I’m sure you’ve read in which President Zelenskyy of Ukraine complains about the reporting about the so-called discord leaks, which contained material on almost every imaginable subject around the world, but of special interest to Ukraine – had information said to be U.S. intelligence estimates that Ukraine was running out of air defense weapons, that this war was likely heading toward a stalemate.  Zelenskyy said to our journalists this was not helpful.

One thing that the story said was that you, as Secretary of State, had talked to your counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in April about these leaks that were just hitting.  What did you tell him?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Without commenting on purported leaks of documents, I can say this generically about the stories that were in the press.  What I told him is we very much regretted the unauthorized exposure of these documents, that we took very seriously our obligations and responsibility to protect information.   We, of course, have arrested someone who is allegedly responsible for this.  And at the same time, we were determined to pursue our partnership with Ukraine, our support for Ukraine.

I think it’s fair to say that Ukrainians, as well as many other countries around the world, have benefitted from the extraordinary information that the United States is able to develop and provide that helps support, defend, protect their security as well as ours.  I have to say, David, going around the world since then, meeting with colleagues from probably dozens of countries, this has virtually not come up.  In fact, to the extent it’s come up, I’ve raised it just to make clear how seriously we take this.

QUESTION:  The Ukrainians and President Zelenskyy obviously took the information in these alleged leaks with special seriousness, because of their planned offensive.  They’ve made no secret of the fact that they want to push the Russians back, and here were arguments that they may have limited success.  Documents aside, you study this every day.  This is an anguishing war on your watch.  What’s your sense, as we head in the spring and summer, and this long-awaited counteroffensive is about to dawn, about Ukraine’s ability to alter the balance over the course of this year in this war in a way that might make ending the war possible?  What do you think?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, this:  What was published in the press, in the media reflected a particular point in time.  And this is not static.  And so, where Ukraine might have been a month ago, two months ago, three months ago is not where it is now in terms of its ability, for example, to prosecute a counteroffensive and to deal with the ongoing Russian aggression.  So, that’s one very important thing to keep in mind.

Second, we have been engaged intensely over many months with about 50 countries in trying to provide the support that Ukraine needs both to defend itself, but also to help regain territory that’s been taken by Russia over the last 14, 15 months.  Lloyd Austin has, I think, worked miracles in bringing together 50 countries in a very coordinated way.  And it’s not just the equipment that we provide, because while that’s vital, it’s not enough.  In and of itself, it doesn’t do it.  You’ve got to be able to use it – training – you’ve got to be able to maintain it – we’ve been working on that.  And then, the Ukrainian forces have to be able to use everything in a coordinated and combined way, and many countries have been working to support them on that.

So, I feel confident that they will have success in regaining more of their territory.  And I think it’s also important to note that, for Russia, this is already a strategic failure.  Russia sought to erase Ukraine from the map, to eliminate its independence, to subsume it into Russia.  That has failed.  And of course, Ukraine has regained a big chunk of the territory that Russia originally had its footprints on.  Where exactly this settles remains to be seen.  And Ukraine has to make important decisions about exactly where it’s going to go, how far it can get, and how it wants to pursue this.  But we’re determined to sustain that support.  We’re also determined not only to look at this in the short term with this intense focus on the counteroffensive in the months ahead, but also for the medium and long term.

Because what Ukraine also needs – and what many countries around the world are interested in doing on a sustainable basis – is to help them develop the kind of military that in the future can effectively deter another Russian aggression – and if deterrence doesn’t work, to defend against it, and if necessary to defeat it.  That is going to put Ukraine in the strongest possible position, as well as helping to rebuild the country and pursuing its integration into Europe, its economic integration.  The combination of those things, as well as Ukraine continuing to pursue policies that root out corruption, that put in place transparency, good governance, strong civil society, a vibrant, independent media – those are the secrets to success, to resilience, to strength for Ukraine over the coming years in being able to resist further Russian aggression.  So, we’re walking and we’re running, even, and chewing gum at the same time.

QUESTION:  So, that’s a useful summary and a hopeful summary of where Ukraine will end up.  I hear you saying they will gain some territory as a result of this counteroffensive.  A question that lies ahead after these months is whether there’s some effort to seek a settlement that might include, yes, the United States and Europe, but also China, which has expressed a strong interest in doing so, has a 12-point peace proposal.  As I look at the 12 points, many of them are ones that we’d probably write ourselves.  What do you think in principle, Mr. Secretary, about the idea of the United States working in parallel at some point down the road with China to seek a stable outcome here?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that.  If we have a country, whether it’s China or other countries, that have significant influence, that are prepared to pursue a just and durable peace – and I’ll come back to what that means in a minute – we would welcome that.  And it’s certainly possible that China would have a role to play in that effort, and that could be very beneficial.  There were elements in the plan that China put out, things that actually it had said and many others had said for some time, that were positive.  But it has to begin with a couple of things.

First, a clear understanding that in this instance, there’s a victim and there’s an aggressor.  There’s no moral equivalence between the two positions.  And I have to say, until recently, it was very unclear whether China accepted that basic principle.  I’m still not sure that they do, but at least President Xi has now had a conversation with President Zelenskyy.  That’s a positive thing, because it’s vitally important that China and other countries that have been seeking to advance peace hear from the victim, not just the aggressor.

Second, any peace really has to be both just and durable, and what do I mean by that?  Just in the sense that it has to basically reflect the principles that are at the heart of the United Nations Charter, when it comes to territorial integrity, when it comes to sovereignty.  It can’t ratify what Russia has done, which is the seizure of so much of Ukraine’s territory.  And it needs to be durable in the sense that we don’t want this to land in a place where Russia can simply rest, refit, and re-attack six months later or a year later.  So, we have to look at all of that.  But as a matter of principle, countries, particularly countries with significant influence like China, if they’re willing to play a positive role in trying to bring peace, that would be a good thing.

But, it starts fundamentally with Vladimir Putin actually making that fundamental decision.  We’ve not seen that yet.  There is zero evidence that Russia is prepared to engage in meaningful diplomacy.  To the contrary, we’ve seen the horrific onslaught, just in the past week, again, on civilian targets in Ukraine.  We saw the horrific story of a father in an apartment building who, after this attack, opens the door of his children’s room to find that it’s gone and they’re gone.  So, there has to be some profound change in Mr. Putin’s mind and in Russia’s mind to engage in meaningful diplomacy.

QUESTION:  One more quick question.  We’re talking about China.  You had a trip that was scheduled to China that you postponed, because of the Chinese spy balloon.  And I have to ask you:  In a period where there seems to be some warming of relations between the United States, beginning of a thaw, are you hopeful that you may be able to reschedule that trip this year?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I am, and I think it’s important, as President Biden laid out in Bali when he was with President Xi at the end of last year, that we re-establish regular lines of communication at all levels and across our government.  We’re in a competition with China; there’s no secret about that.  But we have a strong interest in trying to make sure that that competition doesn’t veer into conflict.  There’s a clear demand signal from around the world that we manage this relationship responsibly – a demand signal on us, but also on Beijing.  And that starts with engagement, that starts with communicating, it starts with trying to make sure, again, that we don’t veer into conflict.  If there are areas where we can actually cooperate, because it’s in the interest of our people, Chinese people and people around the world, so much the better, but at the very least we need to have a floor under this relationship.  We need to have some guardrails on it.  And the way to do that is through engagement.

QUESTION:  So, Mr. Secretary, we want to thank you for coming here, for answering all these questions frankly, and especially we want to thank you for marking with us World Press Freedom Day.  This is a period where journalists are under threat.  Knowing that senior officials of the U.S. Government, the leadership of the United Nations stand with people in our business in insisting that journalists be free to do their work matters a lot.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  You know, David, we’re also trying, at least in my department, to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  One of the first things we did – actually, probably the first thing we did – was to restore the daily press briefing at the State Department.  Virtually, wherever I travel, I have your colleagues with me.  And, pretty much every stop, we have some kind of press conference, press engagement that brings in our travelling pool but also brings in journalists from the countries that we’re traveling to, including countries that may not have the most open media environment.

It’s hugely important to me and to us to demonstrate that we’re holding ourselves accountable by making sure that we’re answering questions, we’re engaging with people who have one of the most important responsibilities in this world, and that is to hold governments, to hold institutions to account, to shine light where there’s darkness, to give people confidence in their institutions, in the people who have the responsibility to represent them.  I think, in my experience, there’s actually no more important time for it.  I’m incredibly grateful – even if there’s some days when I don’t feel like it – incredibly grateful to you and to all of our colleagues.

The other day – and let me end with this – I got a chance to sit down with Ben Hall from Fox, who was part of our traveling family and then was grievously injured in Ukraine covering the war, trying to shed light on it.  Extraordinary story.  He’s back.  It was just incredibly good to see him and have a chance to talk to him.  I said to him when we started the interview how glad I was to see him back, and I said I’d probably regret saying that about five minutes later when the interview was over.  (Laughter.)  But it was just one powerful example of the dangers that so many of our colleagues expose themselves to so that they can bring forward the story, bring forward the truth, and I’m really grateful for it.

QUESTION:  So amen to those comments, and thanks to our courageous colleagues.  Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

(Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thank you, my friend.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks.  Thank you.

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-with-washington-post-columnist-david-ignatius-on-the-state-of-press-freedom-worldwide/

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