Remarks by Public Affairs Officer Brian Beckmann to Journalism Students and Graduates

Good afternoon.  First, I would like to extend my thanks to Rector Gjana for inviting me to speak with you all today.

My message today is this: speak the truth.

When asked to come today, I was asked to address freedom of the press, the relationship between media and politics and challenges faced by Albanian journalists.

What unites these topics? The truth.

The United States views a free press as an essential pillar of democracy.  We value the freedom of the press as a key component of democratic governance.  Why? Because we believe that when the press is free to do its job, citizens are more informed, active, and engaged in political decision-making.  It is always better to have an informed citizenry and to limit the government’s control of information so that citizens can shape government decisions and check the power of politicians.  A democracy should be government by the people, for the people.

A free press is also able to fulfill its role in a democracy – to hold the government accountable.  The press serves as a watchdog to ensure governments are serving the people in good faith and are carrying out their duties.  In the United States, the media is often referred to as a fourth pillar of democracy. Although not officially part of our system of government, the media – alongside the executive, judicial, and legislative branches – plays a vital role.  It is an essential part of our system of checks and balances.

To keep the government in check, the media needs to speak the truth.  When wrongdoing, fraud, or corruption are uncovered, it is the job of the media to report it – fairly, and accurately.  It is the job of the media to get the truth to the people so they can participate in the democracy as well-informed citizens.

The relationship between the media and politics is also central to this discussion. Independence is a right that the media should have in any healthy democracy. No government should be the guard at the gate, deciding what information citizens should access, what is fair, and what is true.

In my work, I deal with the press every day.  I’ve often been asked, “How do you handle dealing with your rival on a daily basis?”  My answer is always the same: the premise of the question is wrong.  A common perception among communicators is that journalists are out to get you.  The reality is, if I am engaging the press, both the journalist and I have a job to do.  The journalist should be seeking the truth.  Me?  I have a story to tell.  I have information I want to get out there as a communication professional. As a government communicator, it is my job to deliver information on behalf of the American people.  If I do my job right, both the journalist and I can walk away with what we want.

Unfortunately, what we see today in Albania is an increasingly biased media environment.  More than ever before, owners of media outlets have a stronger influence on what is reported and how it is covered.  We see bad actors, like these owners or those in this country with influence, who use the press to threaten international businesses with blackmail in order to deter investments and clear the way for their own personal interests.  We see stories that are written, not based on all the relevant facts, but rather on partial, distorted information presented to promote the interest of one industry, party, or individual over another.  They are using the media solely to get what they want.

Every editorial meeting in Albania should start with “What is the story we need to tell?” It should not be, “Who should we go after today?”  The stories need to be centered on the truth, not on how the power of the press can be wielded as a weapon against a person, a business, or a political party.

But there is hope. You all can help change this.

If you strive to put the truth out there, you can help not only shape Albania’s future, you can also contribute to a society that functions better.  You can inform and equip your neighbors and fellow Albanians by giving them the information they need to be better citizens.

We are here to help you.

We, the U.S. Embassy, have a great interest in seeing free and independent media in Albania, and we back up our interest with our commitments.  Over the past several years, we have invested in the future of Albanian journalism.  Each year we send several Albanian journalists to the United States to familiarize them with the U.S. media environment.  They learn from advocacy organizations and those that train American journalists.  The hope is that these participants will learn something useful from the U.S. system and bring that back to Albania. We do so with the hope that they can raise editorial standards, help build a code of journalistic ethics here, and improve the methods journalists use to determine and put out the truth.

One of your very own is a beneficiary of this programming.  Professor Erlis Çela, the head of your Communication Department, participated in one of these programs last year.  We also just received word that three of your fellow students here at Beder University will be participating in one of these programs this summer.  I hope that their experience is fruitful and that you all will benefit from what they learn.

We are also investing time and resources here in Albania to create even more opportunities for those who seek to speak the truth.  Our Investigative Journalism Lab is now in its third year.  This program is a one-year hands-on experience that gives 10 to 12 young aspiring journalists the skills and techniques they need to do better research and tell more interesting stories.

Investigative journalists are responsible for some of the most well-known stories in journalism.  Watergate, civil rights, and exposure of the Iran-Contra affair are examples from the United States that demonstrate how investigative journalism exposed the truth and changed our policies and our politicians.  The journalists accomplished this through thorough research and good storytelling to ensure that the American people saw the truths they uncovered.

This too can happen in Albania.  The U.S. Embassy, alongside the Dutch and the Swiss, have partnered with RTSH to produce the bi-weekly 31 Minutes show.  If you haven’t had a chance to watch, you can find links to some of their stories on our Facebook page.  By providing a platform for our Investigative Journalism Lab graduates to practice their trade, we hope they too will raise awareness on interesting and important stories.  Most importantly, we hope they will find and broadcast the truth.

So to conclude today, I’ll end how I started. With a challenge: go out there, seek the truth, and speak the truth.  You have the ability to shape Albania’s future.  If you choose to be a truth-speaker, we will be right here to support you and champion your work.

Thank you.