Op-ed by U.S. Ambassador Dean Pittman for World Press Freedom Day

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Op-ed by U.S. Ambassador Dean Pittman for World Press Freedom Day

May 3, 2018

In the dark days of September 1962 in my home state of Mississippi, after the U.S. Federal Government was forced to send in the army to enroll the first African-American student at the state’s largest public university, Ira B. Harkey, a newspaper editor in the coastal city of Pascagoula, received a phone call.

“I was at a meeting last night of some people who want to see you get killed,” the man said.

Harkey worked at Pascagoula’s only newspaper, The Chronicle, and had written over the previous eight years many editorials calling for the peaceable racial integration of Mississippi’s public spaces, such as bathrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains, and its institutions, such as universities, courtrooms, and legislative bodies.  He was among a handful of courageous journalists willing to speak out.  While many privately felt the time had come for racial integration in Mississippi, few business or religious leaders or politicians or even journalists dared to challenge publicly those calling for continued separation of the races, or to condemn racial violence in the state when it broke out.  A few days after the warning from the caller, who never gave his name, someone shot a rifle through the front door of The Chronicle’s downtown office.

And yet, Harkey continued to write, in 1962 and throughout the tumultuous years that followed.  In the face of clear and escalating threats against his safety, through his editorials Harkey condemned violence against African-Americans and those advocating for immediate integration.  Through his newspaper, he publicly called on the honor of the people of Mississippi to do the right thing, and to speak up for what they knew was right.  My father was also, during that time, a journalist in Mississippi and also received threats due to his reporting on civil rights issues.  Like Harkey he knew that journalist must continue to speak out and to speak the truth.  These journalists were champions of the free press at a time in Mississippi when it was not easy.

Why does this story about Ira B. Harkey and other fearless journalists from more than 50 years ago in Mississippi matter to us today in Mozambique?  It matters because May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, and we witnessed only a few weeks ago threats and a horrific attack against a respected Mozambican political commentator who was clearly targeted for stating his opinions on a popular television show.  Like Harkey, the Mozambican commentator was carrying out the fundamental duty of his profession: he publicly offered frank and straightforward analysis of recent events.  There are also key differences, however, between Mississippi then and Mozambique today.

First, unlike Mississippi at the time, Mozambique has seen, over the past few years, a resurgence in healthy public debate in newspapers, on television and radio programs, and especially on social media.  Journalists and citizens alike have grown increasingly confident in asking the hard questions that provoke discussion on the challenges faced by this great nation.  As an American, and as the U.S. Ambassador, I am encouraged whenever a Mozambican reporter presses me with a tough question or challenges me on a policy position.  Agreeing all the time is easy.  Publicly acknowledging disagreements and constructively working through them, however, is how democracy works best.

Second, unlike the shameful muted reaction in Mississippi to the threats against Harkey and others, there was a chorus of Mozambican voices that condemned the recent attack in Maputo.  Representatives from civil society, government officials, and leaders from political parties roundly denounced the attack and defended the right of Mozambicans to freely state their opinions and participate in public debate.

Finally, while the local police in Pascagoula, Mississippi did little to investigate the threats against Harkey, the police in Maputo have pledged to conduct a serious and thorough investigation of the recent attack, and the United States joins the Mozambican people in looking forward to seeing the results of that investigation.  Many people in Mississippi who disagreed with segregation failed to speak out because they feared, often correctly, that a largely racist police force would not protect their safety.  Police in Mozambique, therefore, have an important and constructive role to play to ensure journalists, and all citizens, can report on events and offer opinions in an environment free from violence and intimidation.

We study the past, as the saying goes, to avoid being doomed to repeat it, and because it helps us build a better future.  In Mississippi, those dark days are behind us, thanks in part to the indomitable spirit of a free press.   My hope is that, as we go forward, the examples of Ira B. Harkey, Ericino de Salema, and the many other brave voices will inspire us, as citizens of the United States and Mozambique, to continue defending the free press that is so vital to any democracy.For more information about this press release, please contact the U.S. Embassy Maputo Press Office at MaputoPress@state.gov.