President Barack Obama signed legislation on Monday that will promote press freedom around the world and honor a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan in 2002.
The Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act requires the State Department to identify countries that violate press freedoms by subjecting journalists to physical attacks, imprisonment and censorship. In countries where opposition to the press is particularly severe, the department will determine whether foreign governments are directly participating in or condoning the treatment of journalists.
The State Department, as part of its annual review of human rights practices in each country, will also report on what actions foreign governments have taken to prosecute those who attack or kill journalists.
Obama said the legislation will single out countries and subject them to the “gaze of world opinion” as he signed the bill into law in the Oval Office. “Without this kind of attention, countries and governments feel they can operate against the press with impunity and we want to send a message that they can’t.”
The legislation was inspired by Pearl, who was kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan shortly after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Pearl, then The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, was abducted in Karachi while working on a story about the would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid.
Pearl’s family, including his widow Mariane and his son Adam, who was born several months after Pearl’s death, was present at the Oval Office on Monday as Obama signed the law.
“The loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination because it reminded us how valuable a free press is and it reminded us that there are those who will go to any length in order to silence journalists around the world,” Obama said, noting that Pearl’s vision of a well-informed citizenry lives on after his death.
According to the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, 11 journalists have been killed worldwide so far this year, while another 164 have been imprisoned.
Clothilde Le Coz, the group’s Washington director, said she was pleased with the legislation, but added that it was too soon to say what, if any, impact the State Department’s findings would have on journalists’ safety.
“It’s difficult to say whether it will bring change,” she said. “It all depends on how the report will be done and what use will be made [of it].” Le Coz said she hopes the Obama administration uses the State Department’s findings as a diplomacy tool when meeting with foreign officials about human rights.
Although Monday’s bill signing was about press freedom, Obama refused to answer questions from journalists who were covering the event. “You are free to ask them,” Obama replied to one reporter who tried to ask about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But, the president continued, “we won’t be answering.”
The Freedom of the Press Act won bipartisan support in Congress, where it was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Reps. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who are co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press.
“In many parts of the world, the freedom of the press is the last — or even the only — safeguard against the complete erosion of all other human rights,” Dodd said after the Senate unanimously passed the bill last month. “The horrific murder of Daniel Pearl that shocked the world also opened our eyes to the abuse and harassment that many journalists face, too often at the hands of government authorities.”