Secretary of State John Kerry on Freedom of the Press (January 28, 2016)

The Washington Post Headquarters
Washington, D.C.
January 28, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY:  Thank you, and good morning everybody.  And weeks ago – and I did receive the invitation to come here weeks before we knew whether or not Jason would be able to be released, and the others – I really looked forward to being here for this celebration, special celebration of the opening of the building and the moving of The Washington Post.  But obviously, this is particularly sweet for everybody now that Jason is home.

In the military, as you all know, and in other dangerous callings, the most sacred pledge that you can make is to never leave a buddy behind.  Like most pledges, it’s a lot easier to say than to do.  Carol Morello wrote a wonderful story the other day from Cambodia about the efforts of Bill Gadoury that are 34 years in the doing.  So no matter how great the effort – and it was really special; your folks here at the Post, the senior leadership, did an absolutely remarkable job everywhere, and they were everywhere, and consistent.  And Jason, you have the best bosses you could have in that regard.

But despite all of that effort, for everybody, this gnawed at us.  Because we sensed the wrongfulness.  And we knew that Jason and others were living the consequences, 545 days.

So I will tell you, frankly, that a week ago on Saturday was really one of the days that I enjoyed the most as Secretary of State.  It was also perhaps the most nerve-wracking.  I have to tell you that we had 12 hours of delay working through complications on implementation day, last-minute negotiations.  And then after we had announced implementation day, I came out of that announcement and Javad Zarif came up to me and said, “We can’t find his wife and his mother.”  Now, from some people, that might make sense.  But Iran couldn’t find – (laughter) – the wife and mother?

So there was an enormous amount of activity – very, very, very quickly.  And to the credit of Javad Zarif, he moved, and moved rapidly.  And he got a number of people moving in Iran, including the president’s brother, and they woke up a judge in the middle of the night, got papers signed that needed to be signed to release Yegi, and now we all know the end of this great story.

The same gnawing and anxiety is true for the other families – for Saeed Abedini, for Amir Hekmati, for Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, for Matthew Trevithick – and remains true for the family of Bob Levinson.  And we will continue and do continue to make the same efforts that we have made for everybody else in order to find out what has happened there.

These detentions, each and every one of them, defined for us an injustice.  And the time loss can never be reclaimed.  But Jason, we are all so delighted that you are back now.  And I am delighted to join you here this morning, not just to welcome Jason back, but to celebrate the moving of this iconic institution, The Washington Post, from 15th Street to K Street.

The Post obviously is one of the few papers carrying the history that this paper carries.  I can tell you personally there’s nothing like sitting down in the morning and reading a story, catching up quickly on the Patriots or the Bruins, and then – Marty will understand that – (laughter) – and then reading a story about the Middle East that makes me want to go back to bed.  (Laughter.)

On a personal level, I have to tell you the Post has been extremely generous to me.  In 2015 alone, without my even asking, you gave me no fewer than eight Pinocchios.  (Laughter.)  And I think you’ll agree that the competition last year was amazing.  (Laughter.)

Everybody knows that any institution, but particularly a newspaper, needs tremendous leadership.  And you’ve had that here for decades, a legendary editor in Ben Bradlee, legendary owner Katharine Graham and the Graham family, and it still has that kind of leadership with Jeff Bezos and its publisher Fred Ryan.  And as for Marty Baron, I can remember personally the tremendous job that he did editing my hometown paper.  And the movie Spotlight, Marty, I think it nailed what you’re all about.  (Laughter.)  It also nailed what the best journalism can do by peeling away the layers of indifference and finding answers to questions that a lot of people are afraid to ask.  It’s no coincidence that critics have called Spotlight the best film about the newsroom since All the President’s Men.

Now, all of you here know – I think Bob Woodward is here somewhere.  I saw him.   There he is, right here, Bob.

When the Post last time inaugurated its headquarters, it was 1972, and the White House was slamming this paper’s coverage of a certain third-rate burglary.  And a year earlier, the Nixon administration had tried, passionately, to stop the publishing of the Pentagon Papers.  And for many of us, this was a formative moment in our political lives and in our lives, period.  Make no mistake, one reason that so many people in the media today are prepared to tell the truth, to stand up to powerful interests, is precisely because The Washington Post proved that not even the President of the United States is above the law.

So as you enter a new home, you bring with you some glorious and some ink-stained baggage – not only from Woodward and Bernstein, but from Greenfield, Broder, McGrory, Buchwald, Herblock, Povich, Raspberry, Bradlee, and many, many more.  That’s what you bring with you.  But you also bring something else.  You bring a commitment to the future and to defining the future that is different from so many countries that I am privileged to visit in my capacity as Secretary.

The dedication of this building is a neon sign of faith in the future of journalism, the future of newspapers themselves.  And we’ve all heard the modern-day Cassandras’ prophecy that – because of new technology – traditional journalism is a dying enterprise.

But they don’t honor the fact that knowing the truth, curiosity is just part of the human DNA.  As a species, we are driven to know what’s going on in the world – maybe particularly as Americans – it’s in our DNA.  And that desire resides deep in the bloodstream of every journalist, aspiring or established.  I can tell you from my perch – and I talked about this a little bit in Davos the other day, with the levels of corruption and failed and failing states – it is absolutely vital that the truth emerge and that facts be known, because otherwise, people just make stuff up and feed whatever propaganda they want.  And we’ve seen that in these modern times with great damaging effect.

We see it in what happens in the absence of knowledge and the power that it gives to dictators, to demagogues, to tyrants.  Silence allows crime and corruption to rot whole countries.  Ignorance allows demagogues to argue that up is down and black is white, that merely interviewing a dissident is somehow tantamount to treason, and yes, some people to even claim that rape and murder of an innocent is the calling of God.

You know better than I do that we live today in a global fish bowl.  With the help of social media and a gazillion cameras, we have more awareness, data sources, access than ever before.  And in my profession and yours, we are all constantly drawn – or pushed – to places where fundamental facts are in dispute, and somebody has to find the truth.  Truth does battle with myths everywhere now, and competing myths fight one against the other, making objectivity on political life the first casualty, and often not the last.

So this struggle to define truth is really what moving into this building and continuing the great tradition of this paper is all about.  Finding the truth is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute.  It’s at the heart of defining the difference between Sunni and Shia, extremism and religion.  It’s at the heart of the crisis involving Russia and Ukraine.  It’s at the heart of the South China Sea conflict.  And most starkly, it is in the narratives that are put forth by terrorists who are utterly repellent to most people but actually still attractive to some.

So this is a very precious endeavor, and I just leave you with one or two quick observations.  Last year alone, 71 media workers were killed while on duty and almost 200 were thrown into jail.  The most dangerous country was Syria, where the incomparable Anthony Shadid died in 2012.  And Shadid, as everybody here knows – made his name here at the Post, worked in Boston too – had a rare gift for uncovering everyday stories that confirm, clarify, warn against, or utterly defy conventional assumptions about the direction and meaning of events.  That’s the best of journalism.  And while pursuing these essential stories, he was shot and wounded in the West Bank, kidnapped and beaten in Libya, stalked in Lebanon, all before he even secretly entered into Syria to report on the civil war.

Years ago when I was in Vietnam, I would read occasionally or hear occasionally of a journalist who was killed, who had died.  And almost always the reason was essentially an accident: someone caught in a crossfire, perhaps stepping on a landmine.  I think what distinguished it is it was essentially anonymous.  That is not true today.  Journalists then were rarely hunted.  Today they are.  In our era, roughly two-thirds of the reporters who die violently are killed not in spite of their profession but because of it.  And they are attacked for what they have written, silenced for what they have witnessed, or kidnapped for the leverage that their capture might provide.  And in most cases, the perpetrators are never caught.

In October 2007, Salih Saif Aldin was shot and killed while reporting on sectarian violence in a neighborhood southwest of Baghdad.  Who murdered him is still not known.  The why is anybody’s guess.  And years before, at the insistence of his employer at The Washington Post, he had moved away from his hometown of Tikrit, where corrupt officials had placed a bounty on his head.  That’s the price of journalism today.  Salih’s colleagues remembered him as a fearless questioner who never shied away from the toughest assignments, and he died in answer to a calling that matters, with the hope in his heart that the information that he uncovered would help his troubled country find a better future.

The truth is that independent media – reporters, broadcasters, photographers, bloggers, even cartoonists – are under constant pressure today, whether physical or political.  And here we are well into the 21st century, and yet only about one person in six lives in a country where the press can truly be described as free.

So it is up to us, up to you, up to the defenders of liberty to close ranks.  And this begins with the recognition that no government, whatever its pretensions and whatever its accomplishments, can fairly call itself great if its citizens are not allowed to say what they believe or are denied the right to learn about events and decisions that affect their lives.  So let me underscore:  A country without a free and independent press has nothing to brag about, nothing to teach, and no way to fulfill its potential.

To those who try to intimidate or imprison reporters, we need to stand up and say loud and clear that committing journalism, reporting on the truth, is not a crime.  It is a badge of honor.  It is a public service.

And that is why I am proud that each day, when America’s embassies and consulates demand answers, voice objections, press for accountability on behalf of imprisoned or threatened journalists – I’m proud that the State Department and USAID have programs that support independent media in more than 30 countries.

I’m also proud to think that since Thomas Jefferson up to this very moment, our country has been associated more than any other nation on the face of this planet with liberty of expression and thought.

So today we dedicate a new headquarters for an institution that has earned a place of extraordinary honor in any history of press freedom.  We do so at a moment when the topic of freedom for journalists is particularly fresh in our minds and when the struggle for justice and truth is being waged on every continent of this planet.  I’ve got to tell you, as Secretary of State, my fondest hope would be for your war correspondents and chroniclers of conflict to have nothing to report.  But with the world as it is, I know I can speak for our entire nation in saying we are so grateful to have you do what you do.

To every member of The Washington Post family: thank you, congratulations, may God bless you and keep you safe.  And welcome home, Jason.