Here’s what a world without a free press looks like. Believe us — we know.

February 13, 2020

Editor’s note: Amanda Bennett is the director of Voice of America, part of the government agency that oversees all non-military, U.S. international broadcasting. Funded by Congress, VOA produces digital, TV and radio content in 47 languages distributed to affiliate stations around the globe. Journalists at VOA headquarters in Washington, D.C., work with a global network of correspondents and stringers to cover U.S. and international affairs. U.S. government officials are prohibited from interfering with the objective, independent reporting of news by VOA.

This piece was adapted from a speech she gave at the National Press Club in October 2019, when she was honored with the Fourth Estate Award. 

Sometimes, for a lifelong American journalist, worrying about threats to a free press feels a bit like a fish worrying about the oceans drying up.  For our entire careers — and for many of us, our entire lives — we’ve lived and worked so deeply inside a society with a free press we’ve forgotten, if we ever knew, just how extraordinary that is.

We worry about threats to a free press in our country — yet overwhelmingly we still write, speak, criticize and investigate corruption, bias, violence, prejudice and all sorts of wrongdoing and know that our work will often lead to action — and that action won’t be a jail term or torture.

A life truly without a free press?  It’s kind of hard to really imagine.

Yet, today from where I sit near the end of a very long journalism career,  I feel a little bit like George Bailey. Because every day I get to see something I wouldn’t ordinarily have ever been able to see: I can see what our country would be like — what the world would be like — if we didn’t have the First Amendment.  If we didn’t have the Fourth Estate. If we didn’t have journalists, and journalism. If we didn’t have the blessed privilege of living in a country with a First Amendment in a society that still takes it seriously.

Because these days I find myself in an extraordinary place, at a job I never expected to hold, at an organization I had almost forgotten existed, doing work I didn’t know needed to be done. I’m the Director of the Voice of America, the U.S. taxpayer-funded news organization that reaches more than 280 million people in more than 60 countries in 47 languages — on television, radio and all kinds of digital means that you know about — and many that you’ve never heard of.

I joined VOA after a long career at The Wall Street Journal, including a stint as Beijing bureau chief; as editor or managing editor for three regional papers — The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon; The Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader; and The Philadelphia Inquirer — and finally as the creator of a global investigative team at Bloomberg News.

I saw a lot in all those jobs, all around the world.  But I was always protected. We had a free press. The world that I see from this perch at VOA is a world that is less fair. Less caring of its citizens’ rights — often brutally so. In our country, we rightly care about the gap between rich and poor — yet in a world without a free press there is outright cruelty as despots seize a country’s assets as their own.

And just think what it is like to live in a world where the press isn’t just messy, unruly and increasingly polarized. Think of a world where you can believe nothing — nothing — of what you read, hear or see in your country’s media. Where every word is carefully calibrated to make you believe that up is down, right is left, bad is good, good is bad and — as they say — resistance is futile.

How do I know? Because a world without a free press is where my colleagues and I here at VOA live every day. You know those lists that Freedom House puts out every year of unfree countries? Well, count up roughly 50 or 60 countries from the bottom and there you have it: our audience. China. Russia. Iran. Turkey. North Korea.

Here’s what we do:  We broadcast all around the world the uncensored version of speeches. The unheard views of opposition parties.  The stories of disappeared teachers, politicians, journalists — sometimes even whole populations. And we also show the world America in all its greatness, but also its flaws and faults. We are as independent as all of the places I worked before and — as we say — we broadcast the First Amendment.

We do news. Current events. Talk shows. Women’s programs. Health programs. Tech programs. In Chinese, Bambara, Russian. Farsi. Lingala.  Hausa. Ukrainian. Tibetan. And 39 other languages, many of which I’ll bet you’ve never heard of. I know I hadn’t when I started working here.

In a huge part of the world — a bigger part than we can all bear to imagine — we ARE the free press. Not just that, we are also the very idea that a free press can even exist.

For a free press is nothing more than an idea.

Every day here at VOA, we ask people to put aside their fears and prejudices and do the best they can to honestly broadcast both the official line of dictatorships and that of those who oppose it.  We ask them to report fairly about people who may have been their family’s enemies for years, like asking journalists from Myanmar to ignore anger and taunts from relatives and friends back home to give the Rohingya a fair shake. Or to brave government displeasure all around the world by writing dispassionately about the opposition.

We ask them to do this even when it means a mysterious car parked outside their homes in China, or when they are hit by rubber bullets in Hong Kong. When even getting food and water is a struggle as it is in Venezuela. Even when they are pushed, shoved, detained, arrested — as our Tibetan reporters were recently in India. Even when a car bomb narrowly misses them in the Kurdish area of Syria and yes, sometimes … as in Somalia … even when it doesn’t.

We all talk about courageous journalism. Those of us in my generation grew up in Vietnam’s shadow. We saw class fighting class as cops and students clashed. Blacks fighting white, whites fighting blacks. Whole cities burned to the ground. Our country’s national guard turned against our own citizens. Our government riven with corruption and brought to its knees by lies, suspicion and malice. A pointless war that cost so many lives.

How many of us then and now have been practically driven into this business by idealism, by the desire to do courageous journalism? I know that I am just like most of you reading this: becoming a journalist because we wanted to make the world a better place. We built our lives and careers on exposing wrongdoing. And by doing that, over the decades we played — and continue to play – a big role in helping to keep our democracy astonishingly honest. Astonishingly free. Astonishingly dedicated to the concept that government should NOT be corrupt. That companies should make things that do what they say they will do and not hurt people. That businessmen and women and government officials in whom we place our trust should be held to account. That we are a country and a people ruled by laws and principles.

We practice idealistic, courageous journalism.

But really, for me there was no courage at all. It was all privilege.  It was a privilege for me to be able to spend my entire life squarely within the values I know we all cherish.  To know that I won’t meet the same fate that many of my now-colleagues faced back in their home countries. To be detained for my work.  Beaten. Tortured. Have my relatives rounded up or even murdered. My colleagues came here to work at VOA for the privilege of giving their own countries a taste of the privilege that we have enjoyed all our lives.

And the biggest privilege of all for me?

It isn’t a privilege at all.

It’s a right.

We who had that privilege of living our values owe it to those who come next to help ensure that they can too. And that means not just here in the U.S., but all over the world. Here at VOA we have the extraordinary right to do our work as any other journalists do their work, protected by laws that are taken very seriously by people inside and outside VOA’s newsrooms and studios.

Yet even here, the forces that threaten a free press both abroad and at home threaten our journalists, too. If people don’t think seriously about what it means to be almost the entire free press for a whole country, then no one will care if we are attacked, jailed or thrown out.  If people continue to believe that VOA is already just spouting propaganda, then no one will be there to care if some day it is forced to do so.

Amanda Bennett is the director of Voice of America.