Freedom of Expression: Bedrock of Enduring Nations

Remarks of U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David Renz
To the National Press Club of South Sudan
December 14, 2021
|(As prepared for delivery)

  • Mr. Bullen Kenyi Yatta Wani, Chairperson of the National Press Club 
  • Other leaders of the National Press Club, including Mr. Ochaya James, the Executive Director
  • Elijah Alier, Managing Director, Media Authority 
  • Dr. Awan Yath Awan, Undersecretary, Ministry of Information, Communication Technology, and Postal Services.
  • Other government officials
  • Members of the diplomatic corps
  • National and international partner organizations
  • All protocols observed

Freedom of expression is the bedrock on which enduring nations are built.  The most durable governments in the world derive their power and authority from the consent of the people they govern.  America enshrined this principle in our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Government flows from the consent of the governed.  Yet without freedom of expression, the people cannot grant and renew their consent.  Without freedom of expression, government struggles to maintain its legitimacy.  Governments that suppress their peoples’ freedom of expression may seem strong, but by destroying the common consent of the governed on which their authority rests, such governments weaken themselves.  Ultimately, they fail.

Freedom of expression is not controversial in the abstract.  Its roots date back to ancient Greece. Isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly; parrhesia, the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.  America’s founders enshrined these values in the First Amendment to our Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech, of the press, of peaceful assembly, and of association and guaranteeing citizens the right to petition their government.  The right to freedom of expression is found today in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in constitutions around the world, both in countries renowned for their freedoms and in repressive countries like North Korea.  In Africa, there is a long tradition of oral heritage and storytelling.  Proverbs are passed down generation-to-generation.  Dialogue and discussion to achieve consensus are embedded in many African cultures.  In short, the world embraces the ideal of freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression matters in South Sudan, not as an abstract principle, but as an essential condition for forming a permanent government.  A government of the people, by the people, and for the people of South Sudan created to obtain the blessings of liberty, peace, and prosperity for yourselves and your children.  Article 24 of your 2011 Constitution proclaims “Every citizen shall have the right to the freedom of expression… all levels of government shall guarantee the freedom of the press and other media…”   

Respecting your constitution’s guarantee of these essential freedoms will be especially important during the coming year, when you face some momentous decisions that will shape the future of your country.  First among these is the creation of a permanent constitution.  You will need to make fundamental decisions about the structure of your government, including the division of authority, responsibility, and resources between the Federal Government and State governments.  There will be divergent, sometimes passionate views on how to answer these questions.  There is no single right answer.  The answers that endure will be those that emerge from a robust, participatory, and open dialogue among the people of South Sudan.  

The South Sudanese I have met are justly proud of the National Dialogue process, which built discussion from the villages up to engage the people of South Sudan in a conversation about their future.  Much of the work of the National Dialogue can inform debate on the permanent constitution.  The law on the process for drafting the permanent constitution will shortly be considered by the Transitional National Legislature and should include provisions for soliciting citizen input.  Incorporating this input and providing ample public opportunity to comment on each significant revision to the draft will produce a constitution that reflects the consent of the people.

You must also hold elections for a representative government.  One chosen by the people to replace the current appointed government of national unity, itself established by the Revitalized Transitional Peace Agreement.  

Hold elections.  Sounds simple, yes?  Yet the credibility of South Sudan’s elections will turn on far more than the events of election day and the counting of the ballots.  Indeed, it will be determined well in advance.  How the country protects freedom of expression will be critical to whether the people of South Sudan believe their elections are credible.  As American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow once cautioned “we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.”

Political parties must be allowed to form and register based on objective, neutral procedural rules.  Candidates must be able to state their positions freely in speeches and in the press, even when those positions oppose the government or the interests of elites.  The people must be free to associate in political parties and civil society organizations with others who share their views.  People must be allowed to assemble in private and public spaces, in small groups and large rallies.  To do so free from government conditions on what they may say or tactics of intimidation, including oppressive security and coercive threats of arrest or punitive financial actions.    

I understand I ask a lot.  Freedom of expression may be universally proclaimed, but it is far from universally practiced.  It’s very power challenges ideas and beliefs long thought settled.  It challenges government’s authority to rule by demanding that government persuade not dictate.  And it challenges us to continually examine and renew the social contract by which we the people govern our society.  This power threatens both government and society, especially in times of vigorous national disagreement when the temptation to suppress competing views is greatest.  That is when freedom of expression is most vital to diffusing conflict, rebuilding consensus, and preserving peace.  

My own country is no exception.  I was born in the 1950’s and grew up in the 60’s and 70’s.  It was a time of great civil unrest as we struggled to face the legacy of slavery and segregation and confront our involvement in the Vietnam War.  It was a time of sit-ins and boycotts, of civil disobedience which government attempted to suppress with all the authority it could bring to bear.  A time of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to yield her seat on the bus to a white man courageously expressed her belief in the inherent dignity and rights of all people and sparked a year-long peaceful protest.  Of Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor inciting a vicious attack in Birmingham, Alabama on Freedom Riders because their expression of protest threatened the established order.  Of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech.  Those years saw iconic protests of the Vietnam war – protests that turned to riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; our National Guard firing on and killing student protesters at Kent State University.  

Throughout it all, a free press bore witness to the peoples’ exercise of their right to free expression, even in the face of violence.  It’s said a free press forced us to confront bigotry and brought the Vietnam war into America’s living rooms.  Because Americans exercised the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution, we passed historic civil rights legislation and forced our government to end its involvement in Vietnam.  The publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times challenged the abuse of “national security” to suppress speech, establishing important protections against the government’s prior restraint of speech.  Our nation was divided, but our commitment to exercise and protect our freedom of expression allowed us to heal our wounds and emerge stronger and more united as a government and as a nation.

No rights are absolute, including the right to freedom of expression.  Freedom of assembly is freedom to assemble peacefully.  Riots, even if sparked by outrage over an injustice, are never justified.  A mob armed with bricks and bats and guns is not a peaceful assembly, whatever the nature of their grievances.  

Governments have a legitimate interest in protecting the safety and security of both those who assemble peacefully in protest and innocent bystanders who merely live or work in the vicinity.  A balance must be struck.  When permit and notice requirements are used to disfavor unpopular views, when disproportionate security is deployed to intimidate and discourage participation, when protest organizers are arrested and their bank accounts frozen, then government has gone too far.  Such overreach can do more to delegitimize government than any threat posed by those seeking to speak freely.

Nor is the freedom of speech the freedom to incite violence.  Sounds straightforward, right?  Yet defining the boundary where speech crosses into incitement has proven notoriously difficult and continues to fuel spirited debate around the world.  In my country, mere hateful speech, however despicable and offensive, does not rise to incitement.  The Ku Klux Klan and proponents of Nazism have been thoroughly discredited as hateful and violent groups, yet some of our most important court cases upholding freedom of speech have protected their right to speak.  Under our law, speech can be suppressed only if it is intended, and likely to produce, “imminent lawless action.”  As one judge explained, tolerating hateful speech is the best protection we have against any Nazi-type regime in our country.  

History teaches that the first target of government repression is never the last.  Today, the battle rages over cancel culture.  Ideas deemed hurtful to specific groups are said to incite violence against members of those groups.  Claims contrary to prevailing opinion, say, over the origins of or best treatments for COVID-19, are censored.  Advocates of unpopular views are silenced, de-platformed by tech giants, publicly intimidated with attacks on their employers and homes.  Many well-meaning people approve of the suppression of such unpopular speech to prevent the harm they believe it perpetuates.  Some suggest even parents speaking out at school boards against decisions about what to teach their children ought to be prosecuted as “domestic terrorists.”  But consider, if we do not come to the defense of the free speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even if their views are fundamentally opposed to the very freedoms we believe in, then no one’s liberty will be secure.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1786, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”  Sometimes called the fourth estate, or the fourth branch of government, the role of the press has long been recognized as a check on abuses by the other branches of government.  I honor the work of the National Press Club of South Sudan in defending the rights of journalists and the freedom of the press in South Sudan.

At a time when the truth is increasingly under attack, our need for accurate, fact-based reporting, open public conversation, and accountability has never been greater.  Journalists uncover the truth, check the abuse of power, and demand transparency from those in power.  The ability of journalists to gather and research facts and report the news is vital for facilitating the free flow of information and ideas that enable individuals to hold governments accountable.  Journalists are indispensable to the functioning of democracy.  

Yours in not just a profession.  Many would say it’s a calling, one that all too often asks you to risk your safety and security to speak truth to power.  We celebrate the courage of truth-tellers who refuse to be intimidated, often at great personal risk, and we reaffirm the timeless and essential role journalism and a free media play in societies everywhere.  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently paid tribute to your courage, reminding us of the dangers you face.  He said: “Some governments incarcerate journalists, harass them, target them for violence. We’ve seen non-state actors like criminal gangs, terrorists, traffickers threaten journalists too.  And we’ve seen the impact of internet slowdowns, shutdowns, other restrictions that can make it impossible to operate.” 

You will play an essential role in the coming debate over the constitution and the election campaign.  Through you, the people will learn about the discussions underway and the positions of various groups.  Yours is an important voice through which politicians of all parties will seek to speak to the voters.  People will assess the credibility of the constitutional process and the election outcome based on the information you provide.   

It is often said that with great power comes great responsibility, and that is especially true for your profession.  You hold positions of influence, shaping how your audience understands events by the way in which you tell your stories, by the facts you relate and those you withhold, by the conclusions you draw and the opinions you express.  As you craft your reporting, always ask yourself why you are doing this story – to inform? to investigate? to influence? – and remain true to your purpose.   At risk is your own credibility, both as reporters and as the media institutions you represent.  MSM – mainstream media – has become a derogatory epitaph for many Americans who believe our largest media institutions have sacrificed integrity for profits, have confused entertainment for journalism.  

I realize I’ve spoken at some length tonight.  Please indulge me for a few final thoughts.

The United States and South Sudan have a long history together.  South Sudanese officials often describe the relationship with a metaphor.  The United States was the midwife to the birth of South Sudan, they tell me.  You helped bring this baby into the world.  But as it was growing up, you walked away, and we made mistakes.  It’s an interesting metaphor, but I don’t think it is complete.  Some of you are parents, or grandparents, and all of you were once teenagers.  We call it the terrible teens, when children assert their independence and dismiss the advice of elders.  We didn’t abandon South Sudan, but our advice was not always welcome.

There comes a time when children become adults, and once again seek the advice of family and friends.  Not as a parent to a child, but as two friends, standing equally, respecting each other’s experience and views.  I’d like to think this is the relationship now between my country and yours.

It’s in that spirit that I speak with you tonight, passionately, frankly, as a friend offering advice.  You may not agree with everything I’ve said.  I’d be surprised if you did.  That after all is the essence of freedom of expression.  I ask only that you consider my words as you move forward.  

The United States wants South Sudan to thrive.  To be at peace with itself and to prosper.  I want this for each of you.  But we can’t want it more than you do.  I can’t want it more than you do.  The future is in your hands.  I’m betting it will be bright.

Thank you.