Opening Remarks – NUNS 2017 Investigative Journalism Awards

Good evening.

I would like thank the Faculty of Dramatic Arts for hosting today’s event, and, of course, the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia.  In that regard, Mr. Lekic, congratulations on your recent selection to lead NUNS, which works every day to protect the rights of Serbian journalists so they can perform their essential role in a democratic society.  Thanks also to our colleagues from other embassies who have joined us today.

The United States is a strong supporter of a free and independent press. Investigative reporting requires courage, perseverance, and dedication.  Because it almost always entails taking on an institution or someone in a position of power, it is always subject to pressures, and can risk retribution.  The role of the press as an independent, inquisitive, and investigative voice is absolutely essential to checks and balances in a democratic society.  The media is much more than a check on government power.  It also helps authorities identify issues and problems that they may miss in the rush of their daily responsibilities.

As Prime Minister Vucic said a few days ago, “democratic dialog” is extremely important.  The media sector is the primary facilitator of that discussion process.  When the press asks tough questions of those in authority, considers issues of public importance in a different light, and ensures that a country’s core democratic values are upheld, everyone benefits.

Just as we celebrate with Serbia when its World Bank rating for “Doing Business” improves, we should be equally concerned when its press freedom rating dropped 7 places in the most recent report by Reporters Without Borders.  (By the way, the rating of the United States also dropped last year, and I am equally concerned about that.)

Last week we marked World Press Freedom Day.  That same day, NUNS observed that Serbian media operated in an “environment of fear and intolerance.” UNS noted: “Media are free in theory and on paper, but in reality, journalists are impoverished and demoralized.”  The European Parliament, citing its recent report on the “Western Balkans: Trends in Freedom of the Press,” said media laws are poorly implemented, media ownership is unclear, and journalists in the region are subject to growing self-censorship resulting from subtle and open pressures, and intimidation. .

There is no doubt that this is a time of great uncertainty for journalists in Serbia.  Media outlets continue to face financial threats to their very survival.  Less income means less independence, and less independence makes the press more vulnerable to political manipulation or raises the specter of self-censorship.  But censorship, whether imposed by the rich or powerful for political reasons, or self-imposed because the media or its owners fear possible consequences, risks leaving the public poorly informed, and ultimately this can weaken democracy.

So, in the final analysis, the U.S. Embassy supports these awards not as a means of endorsing any of the organizations or stories nominated here today, but rather as a means of encouraging a well-informed public.

The quality of these nominees should not be judged by the number of headlines they provoked, but by the quality of the work that went into their reporting.  Good investigative journalism not only sheds light on an important story, it does so through credible reporting backed by facts, and solid, multiple sourcing.  Without that, the report is not credible, and the journalist has not earned the public’s trust.  If reporters slant the truth, or consciously omit important facts, they deserve to have their work discounted.  It is therefore critical that journalists strive to uphold the highest professional standards. High standards and solid reporting act as a shield against the possibility of unfair and imprudent attacks by vested interests who may object to hard-hitting, quality investigative reporting.

Tonight we are here to recognize those journalists who have invested weeks or months investigating topics of public interest, digging for information, analyzing that information, and sharing it for the public’s consideration.  It is a brave and challenging job, one that does not always win friends, but that is vital to democracy.

In a tough and rapidly changing media environment, the Serbian journalists that we honor tonight have shown courage, dedication, and professionalism.  I offer my hearty congratulations not only to tonight’s winners, but to all those journalists who are working to make Serbia a better place to live and work.

Thank you.