2019 NUNS Awards for Excellence in Investigative Journalism Remarks

Good evening.

My thanks to the Faculty of Drama Arts, Dean Pavlović, and the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia for hosting this event.  As a strong supporter of a free press, the U.S. Embassy is proud to sponsor the NUNS Awards for Excellence in Investigative Journalism for the 14th consecutive year.  Congratulations also to NUNS, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.  Thank you for your important work, and to all journalists in Serbia for what you do.  I’m honored to be in the presence of so many talented and courageous people.

Today we remember journalist Dejan Anastasijevic who recently passed away and who was a model of courageous and ethical journalism. I present my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

A special welcome also to my friends from other Embassies. Diplomats love nothing more than to deliver good news.  However, it is also our duty to carry difficult messages.  Today, I think it is fair to say, there are reasons to be worried about the status of journalism in Serbia.  Serbia needs a free and independent press.  A democratic society has an obligation to do everything possible to guarantee that journalists can work without fear, threats, or political pressure.

The latest World Press Freedom Index says that journalism is in crisis in Serbia.  Last month, their index dropped Serbia to 90th place in the world.  In the four years I have attended this award ceremony, Serbia has seen a precipitous decline of 36 places in that index.  Let me quote from the report: “Aggressive campaigns against investigative journalists carried out by the pro-government media are in full swing.  Some courageous journalists continue to report on dangerous topics such as crime and corruption, but their reports have limited audiences due to the concentration of media ownership.”

In the modern era of internet and instant communication, all countries have their challenges when it comes to press.  That same index also downgraded my country in its most recent version.  Partisan political debates are on the rise in our press, and the civility of debate is undoubtedly declining.  Here in Serbia, there appear to be a number of media outlets which directly serve political and business interests, rather than the public.  With the concentration of media ownership and through the control of advertising revenue, differing opinions and voices are going quieter and quieter.

Too often, the media is weaponized to attack individuals, non-governmental organizations, and political parties who express critical attitudes.  This might lead to short-term political gains, but is dangerous for the survival of a prosperous, peaceful, democratic Serbia.

A free press serves should serve as a watchdog, not an attack dog.  What’s the difference?  A watch dog alerts you, the public, to danger – whether it’s public corruption or environmental problems or inefficiency in government.  An attack dog, on the other hand, can be released by its master at any time – to suffocate an unpopular opinion, to protect a lucrative business interest, or silence the message of an NGO.

In my country, a free press has been instrumental in exposing my country’s most painful truths – the Vietnam War, racism, corruption.  This year’s Pulitzer prizes went to journalists for tackling difficult questions of gun violence, sexual assault, financial and political corruption, prison reform, migration, and international conflict.  From the truths exposed by professional, ethical journalism, we continue to grow as a nation.

Here in this hall, we have proof that the light offered by independent journalism still flickers in Serbia.  You continue to make hugely important contributions to your fellow citizens.  We’re here tonight to honor you, and to put a spotlight on some of the finest examples of this work.  In parting, I leave you with a quotation attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

Thank you for what you do – Serbia is stronger and better because of it.