America’s Commitment to a Free Press is a Beacon to the World

America’s Commitment to a Free Press is a Beacon to the World

By Amanda Bennett
Former Director, Voice of America

I am writing in support of the request to allow a memorial to fallen journalists to be installed in Area I. As former Director of Voice of America — my tenure extended from 4/2016 to 6/2020 — I am convinced that such a memorial will have “preeminent and lasting historical significance,” as required by law.

As I am sure you are aware, the law authorizing the Fallen Journalists Memorial says the memorial will “commemorate America’s commitment to a free press by honoring journalists who sacrificed their lives in service to that cause.” The role that journalists working for a free press play in underpinning — and indeed making possible — a democratic system cannot be overstated. Thus, honoring those who went so far as to give their lives in the service of this endeavor also honors a commitment to both a democratic system and the democratic ideals that underly it.

Through its commitment to maintaining a free and independent press around the world, America demonstrates its commitment to this foundation of democracy. That commitment serves as a beacon of inspiration and a model for the world. In some parts of the world, the only evidence citizens have that a free press is even possible is the example the U.S. sets. Since its inception during World War II, bringing truthful news of the war to Germans cut off behind Nazi lines, the Voice of America has modeled that commitment by acting as a news service, not a propaganda arm. VOA’s first broadcast included this promise: “The news may be good, the news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.” As former director of Voice of America, I am intimately familiar with the passion and care that goes into fulfilling that promise.

Since the beginning of what eventually became the U.S. Agency for Global Media, (encompassing Voice of America and its global counterparts which include Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia) a total of 19 of its journalists have given their lives in pursuit of bringing a free press to the world. USAGM honors their sacrifice in a memorial inside the Cohen building, headquarters of both VOA and of USAGM. This memorial is a forceful reminder of the people who cared so deeply about the importance of a free press that they made this sacrifice. The memorial that I write to support would honor not only these 19 specific individuals, but the others whose lives were forfeit in the same pursuit.

The idea that journalists can and have given their lives in the pursuit of free and independent news around the world gives this proposed memorial not only national significance, but also global meaning and importance. The news and information these journalists report reach citizens directly in over 60 countries around the world. The slain USAGM journalists themselves come from every corner of the world, and were reporting in every corner of the world – in Angola, Turkmenistan, Moscow, Azerbaijan, Somalia – with the most recent deaths – four Radio Free Europe correspondents — killed in a single targeted bomb attack in Afghanistan in 2020.

The significance of these sacrifices of journalists who live and work around the world is intertwined with virtually all the most critical events in history. Voice of America correspondents not only brought news behind Nazi lines during WWII, they also brought news of the outside world to a closed China during the years of the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s and 1990s they told the people of Albania, cut off from the world by a dictator, that the world had not forgotten them. Only the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed how important the work of Voice of America had been in keeping hope alive among the people who for decades were cut off from information behind the wall. More recently, Voice of America journalists were there to report the savage rout of the Rohingya people from Myanmar, and to tell people in China what their own government would not about the questions raised about Coronavirus and its origins. VOA’s colleagues at Radio Free Europe in Russia and its surrounding countries and Radio Free Asia in Cambodia and Vietnam are often the only sources of independent news about critical issues such as Covid and vaccines that the citizens of those countries can access.

A memorial will have global and historical import by reminding people of America of their own country’s commitment to supporting a free press both at home and abroad. Yet this memorial’s impact on an international audience and on international visitors to this country should be no less profound. I pause here in gratitude that the scope of this project is not limited to Americans, but to all journalists around the world who have fallen in pursuit of the truth. Not just their home countries, but ours, benefit from their work.

Hundreds of visitors every year come to VOA and its sister organizations to see and appreciate this commitment. I have no doubt that a public memorial will have an even greater attraction and importance to visitors from all over the world. Such a memorial’s historic and global significance will be enormous, enabling people to value a free press and its sacrifices and to honor journalists from their own and other countries who have died for that privilege.

The names of some who have lost their lives in the pursuit of journalistic truth are well known. The hunt for the 9-11 plotters took the life of my former Wall Street Journal colleague, Danny Pearl, beheaded in Pakistan. Jamal Khashoggi brutally murdered for his writing. The five staff members of the Maryland Capital Gazette gunned down in their offices. Marie Colvin and James Foley who were killed in Syria.

There are others, such as the journalists from Voice of America and their colleagues at Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, who are less well known. Maharram Durrani of Radio Free Europe, killed by a bomb in Kabul as she was just beginning her journalistic career. Ali Nur Siad, killed in a bomb blast in Mogadishu while on assignment for Voice of America. Almigdad Mojalli, killed in Yemen while on a VOA assignment. Nazar Abdulwahid Al- Radhi of Radio Free Europe, shot and killed in Iraq.

World famous or practically anonymous, it is critical to know about and to honor these journalists and their sacrifices in the service of one of America’s most sacred democratic rights.

There is no question in my mind that this memorial will indeed have a preeminent and lasting historical significance.

Amanda Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor, and the former Director of the Voice of America (VOA), the largest and oldest U.S. funded international broadcaster. VOA produces digital, TV and radio content in more than 40 languages, which it distributes to affiliate stations around the world. Through 2013, Bennett served as an Executive Editor for Bloomberg News, where she created and ran a global team of investigative reporters and editors. She was also co-founder of Bloomberg News’ Women’s project. Throughout her storied career in journalism, which included 23 years at The Wall Street Journal, Bennett has served as an editor and reporter at local, regional, and international outlets, stationed everywhere from Portland, Oregon and Lexington, Kentucky to Washington, D.C. and Beijing. She is a member of the Board of Advisors at the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation.