Speech in Seoul about the role of journalists in peace negotiations

Note: At the start of my term, I vowed to post the significant speeches that I made in this space. Well, it’s been a busy couple of months so I am getting caught up. Here’s the remarks that I made at the World Journalists Conference in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, March 25, 2019. The theme of the conference was Role of the Press for Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and World Peace.

 

 

A Free Press Lights the Way Forward

As the President of the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States, I am honored to speak to such a distinguished gathering of global journalists. We meet here at a pivotal moment on the Korean peninsula.

Many of you are visiting South Korea for the first time. Those of you who were here at the World Journalists Conference last year will remember the hopeful political climate. We met a week after South and North Korean athletes marched arm-in-arm into the stadium of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.

That was such a surprising sight after a nerve-wracking period of North Korean missile and bomb tests, which began with the North conducting its first intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 4, 2017, provocatively the same day as the United States celebrated its national Independence Day. Yet more ICBM launches followed, and most alarmingly, the country’s sixth, and most powerful nuclear test, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb.

Amid those fearful developments, bellicose taunts were exchanged between the leaders of North Korea and the United States. Who can forget U.S. President Donald Trump calling Kim Jong-Un “little rocket man,” or Kim denouncing him as a “dotard?” Nevertheless, the world was forced to sit up, it could hardly do otherwise, because even though this name-calling was school boyish, the words were backed by nuclear arsenals. Then, just as startling, we journalists from around the world, gathered here last February, heard the announcement that the U.S. president had agreed to a bilateral summit with the North Korean leader. All this augured well for a step forward toward world peace.

Since then, for the past year, close observers of events related to the Korean peninsula have been witnesses to a five-act drama. In the first act, the global press speculated about where, when, and even if, the two men would meet. Then the world was mesmerized by the theatricality of the Singapore summit, which turned more on the personal chemistry of the principals than on the preparations of professional diplomats. In the months of uncertainty following the initial summit, which did not produce much in terms of concrete results, questions emerged about the utility of bilateral negotiations at the highest level. Then came the disappointment of the Hanoi summit, which ended prematurely, without a formal declaration. Finally, satellite images pointed to the rebuilding of test facilities in the North.

As this story played out, journalists have been there every step of the way, documenting not only the words of the principal protagonists, but also the insights of political operatives and policy experts, the history of the Korean peninsula, and public reactions to the high-stakes nuclear negotiations. In short, they have not stinted to report on the hope, the danger, and yes, the occasional absurdity of the situation.

In monitoring these unfolding momentous events it has been refreshing and an inspiration to note how press freedom has improved by leaps and bounds here in South Korea. While you tour the country this week, as I did last year, you’ll see dozens of national and regional newspapers on newsstands. The current government can rightfully boast that it healed a longstanding rift at the public broadcasters, and the country jumped ahead 20 places in the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

This renaissance of the free press here, part of a broader trend of growing freedoms in the country since the late 20th century, goes hand-in-glove with the culture of innovation and progress. In the span of a few generations, South Korea has evolved from a poverty-stricken, war-torn land to one of the wealthiest and most vibrant of the global economies, and we Americans are proud to call South Korea our ally — one of our most stalwart.

From the standpoint of the organization I represent, the Society of Professional Journalists, a free press is like a beacon that, by radiating the light of truth outward, helps expose to the public gaze even the most sophisticated subterfuges. By contrast, limiting the coverage of negative outcomes darkens the way forward.

Of course, when we talk about concepts such as press freedom and impartiality, we are discussing ideals. These are goals that we, as journalists, must constantly strive toward, rather than destinations to attain. In some countries, there are still many roadblocks along the way. Without a strong judicial framework protecting the free flow of information, governments can cut off access to news outlets and journalists may work at their own peril. In such difficult cases, we need not only journalists dedicated to the highest ethical standards of the profession, but also a legal community in support of freedom of information and of the press.

Journalists are widely perceived as the eyes and ears of the public. They are not diplomats. They do not represent their government, nor do they speak for special interests, such as political parties or social groups with which they may privately identify. When events take a turn for the worse, when summits collapse without results, when there is evidence of retrenchment, they must focus on the events as they unfold.

To be sure, there is more than simply firsthand reporting; there is a legitimate role for opinion journalism. This goal of denuclearization warrants plenty of opinion pieces, but they should be clearly indicated as such. That permits readers and viewers to understand that the selection of facts has been guided by the desire to validate an opinion.

But reporters writing the first draft of history — particularly those covering crucial events such as nuclear disarmament negotiations that so profoundly influence world peace — should render a full and impartial account of events. It is especially important that a free press functioning in an open society behaves responsibly by focusing on the legitimate security concerns of each side; but it should not omit to report on troubling developments. Journalists must report what is done, what is said, and whenever possible, what is unsaid.

To obtain the fullest possible picture of key events like the summits with North Korea, it is important to cover the public reaction. After the Hanoi summit, the Washington Post published an account of the disappointment felt by many South Koreans. One South Korean expert described his fellow citizens as “heartbroken.” A free press provides an impartial chronicle, and in this case, informed Americans of the sentiments of their allies halfway around the world.

With such high stakes, the public has a right to as complete and realistic an account of events as possible. As the Washington Post’s own logo proclaims, “Democracy dies in darkness.” When reporting on nuclear negotiations, this adage may be taken literally as well as figuratively.

A story of the scope and potential impact of the nuclear negotiations on the Korean peninsula is, naturally, of interest in every country around the world. You’ll each produce stories during your time here for your compatriots back home. The greatest contribution that we, as journalists, can make to peace on the Korean peninsula is to report back honestly and fully what we see here.

Thank you.

–30–

 

 


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