President Barack Obama marked Sunday’s World Press Freedom day by inviting three international journalists who have been persecuted as a result of their work, according to the White House.
In addition, he reiterated calls for the release of Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post, who is imprisoned in Iran on what officials have called bogus espionage charges.
The trio with whom he spoke consisted of Fatima Tlisova of Russia, Dieu Cay of Vietnam and Simegnish “Lily” Mengesha of Ethiopia.
Tlisova reported on the Chechen insurgency, including corruption and disappearances of individuals in the North Caucasus. “She was attacked, kidnapped, tortured herself,” Obama said during brief remarks when the White House pool was allowed in near the end of the meeting.
She now works for the Voice of America’s Russian Service and recently covered the Boston Marathon bombing trial.
Dieu Cay (pen name), whose given name is Nguyen Van Hai, is a prominent Vietnamese blogger who served a 12-year prison term for alleged antis-government propaganda. He was released and moved to the U.S. last year.
Mengesgha “helped to shine a light on the outrage of child brides. After her advocacy for a free press, she was harassed and detained,” Obama said. She’s currently in Washington on a fellowship with with the National Endowment for Democracy.
Obama praised the role of journalists, saying, “Journalists give all of us as citizens the chance to know the truth about our countries, ourselves, our governments. That makes us better. It makes us stronger. It gives voice to the voiceless.”
“So I heard firsthand I think from all of them the importance of all of us, including the United States government, speaking out on behalf of the value of freedom of the press,” he said.
“As I indicated to them, these are countries in which we are engaged and do a lot of business, and we think that engagement and diplomacy is absolutely critical to the national interest of the United States. But what’s also important is that we speak out on behalf of the values that are enshrined in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, because we believe those values are not simply American values, that certain core values like being able to express yourself and your conscience without danger is a human right, a universal right, and ultimately makes the world better and stronger when individual conscience and a press that is free is allowed to function.”
He then brought up notorious cases of journalists being killed, as well as the Post reporter’s ongoing travail.
“It’s also a time for us to reflect and honor all those journalists who are languishing in jail as we speak right now, are being harassed, are in danger, and, of course, journalists whose lives were lost. That includes Steven Sotloff and James Foley and Luke Somers; those killed in Paris at Charlie Hebdo.”
“We’ll keep working for the release of journalists who are unjustly imprisoned, including Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post, who is currently being held in Iran,” he said.
He concluded by saying: “I want to thank the three journalists who are here for sharing with me in very clear and stark terms some of the challenges that folks are facing. I want everybody to understand that this will continue to be a priority for the United States in our foreign policy, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because ultimately I believe it’s in the national interest of the United States.”
Among those at the mostly private session were Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary; Stephen Pomper, its Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights; and Bernadette Meehan, the National Security Council Spokesperson.