Recommendations on media freedom commitments for the Summit for Democracy

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In May 2022, the Digital Democracy Project participated in a series of virtual roundtables convened by the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development on a range of topics related to democracy. U.S. officials invited participants to contribute recommendations for commitments for the next Summit, which the State Department expects to be held in the the first half of 2023.

We made the following recommendations during the consultation on media freedom, which was conducted under Chatham House rules, and emailed them afterwards in the following summary,.

Recommendation: President Biden, Vice President Harris Harris, Secretary Blinken, Administrator Power, & all Cabinet officials continue to speak out about the importance of press freedom and decry the murder of journalists — whether by state violence or criminals — within our allies, from India to Israel to Mexico to Saudi Arabia. There are diplomatic negotiations right now with India, for instance, in which press freedom, Internet shutdowns, & violence or hatred towards media pose escalating risks. The Committee to Protect Journalists made a series of recommendations in January 2022 that hold up:

Recommendation: The President & Vice President should always insist on holding joint press conferences with world leaders when they’re traveling or hosting them at home, & make a point of calling on non-state media. President Obama’s press conference with Castro was a high point in that administration. Global confidence in US support for press freedom domestically has been shaken with the rise of an anti-democratic movement that focuses hatred on journalists & casts doubt on journalism. US officials should use every opportunity to vocally support journalists, identify hour journalism helps reveal fraud, waste, abuses of power, & use trade and arms deals to push publicly & privately for journalists to be released. President Biden’s stirring remarks at the White House Correspondents Dinner and followup on Austin Tice are exactly what’s needed — we just need much more of it, across the US government, from the Centers for Disease Control to the Department of Defense to the Department of Justice to the intelligence community.

Recommendation: Call on all governments to #KeepItOn, explicitly opposing Internet shutdowns in authoritarian nations and democratic allies alike.

Recommendation: Issue new guidance clarifying that data journalism is not a crime, & advocate for that position globally. Last week, the Department of Justice announced that it would not charge people engaged in good faith security research under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). This policy is a critical shift to address a real problem for “white hat” hackers who help identify vulnerabilities in US government and support successful “bug bounty” programs, including at the Pentagon. Unfortunately, we’re seeing other nations & governors in the US trying to criminalize journalists reporting on publicly available data from agencies and corporations, seeking to hold them accountable. The US government should lead on this count at home & abroad.

Recommendation: Endorse federal press shield law legislation, like the bill Congressman Raskin introduced, to ensure that acts of journalism are not criminalized in the Unites States, and work with the Justice Department to codify the policies on acquiring records that U.S. Attorney Garland committed to advancing into statute.

Recommendation: Increase funding for circumvention tools, messaging, hosting, & public engagement around the Open Tech Fund. These tools have been incredibly important for press & human rights activists around the world. Making sure they’re open source software is critical for trust and sharing. Explicitly connect open source strategy for trust existing initiatives, from to the 2016 Office of Management and Budget open source policy memorandum on releasing the People’s Code.

Recommendation: Pursue a more open, collaborative co-creation process for the Summit with civil society, modeled on the Open Government Partnership standards. with regular public updates and accountability for commitments.

There should be a more open, democratic, collaborative process around co-creation, which would result in more legitimacy across civil society that comes from it. It would be great if your team could follow up on whether USAID has *launched *the “Media Viability Accelerator,”  if the global “Defamation Defense Fund for Journalists” has offered liability coverage to any reporters yet, & if State has stood up a Journalism Protection Platform.”

These were all welcome initiatives. It would be valuable to know how and when the White House and State Department has moved forward on its announced commitments. If State/USAID could use for existing commitments or a progress dashboard, that’d be helpful to understand.

Please consider establishing regular roundtables, maybe quarterly, to update the American people on commitments and progress. This would help rebuild shaken trust between US government and civil society organizations. State & DRL have done a great job with these virtual calls in May, but it’s not enough.

We’d love to see collaborative documents coming out of each with readouts that participants can build on, with suggested recommendations of broader coalitions to plug into and embrace.

The Summit program and agenda for the 2023 event should be co-created with civil society over the course of 2022, driven by the recommendations that civil society embraces and coupled with ongoing updates on year 1 commitments from agencies.

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