Closing Remarks by Chargé d’Affaires Sharon Hudson-Dean at TechCamp Riga 2015

Riga, May 19, 2015

Mercure Hotel, Riga

It is my great honor to stand before you again as TechCamp Riga comes to a close. While I know it has been a busy (and perhaps exhausting) two days for you, I can feel the energy radiating through the room. You have learned new skills, built networks, and come up with new ideas.

Before you go and put this to use in your home countries, I would like to speak briefly with you about the importance of investigative journalism and recognize your hard work and bravery in what is a difficult, demanding, and sometimes dangerous field.

Investigative journalism plays a fundamental role in a healthy, democratic society. It is part of the lifeblood of democracy. It pumps life into a society by finding the truth and sharing it with the public. Access to the truth galvanizes a community, allowing it to remain informed and engaged with its government. Without transparency and accountability, that community can wither under the pressure of corruption and exploitation.

You, as investigative journalists, play the key role in shining a light of transparency and accountability in your communities. Your work has the immense power to expose wrongdoing, spark reforms, and even change minds.

In the United States, we have countless examples of how investigative journalism has brought about positive changes. From Upton Sinclair’s in-depth reporting of the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants living in Chicago in the early 20th century to the Washington Post’s uncovering of the Watergate Scandal, American journalists have been — and continue to be — civic heroes fighting for justice.

American investigative journalist Robert Parry, who is best known for his role in covering the Iran-Contra affair, wrote, “Investigative reporting is to journalism what theoretical research is to science, having the potential to present new realities and shatter old paradigms – how people see and understand the world around them – which, in turn, can transform politics.

You have the power to make those transformations. Unfortunately, however, your job is not getting any easier. According to Freedom House’s most recent annual report, journalists around the world face increasing restrictions on the free flow of news and information, including threats to their own lives. The intimidation of journalists and the outright censorship of their work has become a troubling, reoccurring theme that was one of the main topics of discussion at UNESCO.

When journalists are silenced, democracy is threatened. It is not an easy role to play, but I encourage you to keep uncovering lies and keep taking risks to find the truth. Your efforts to relentlessly ask the tough questions and do what it takes to expose corruption or flaws in the system are crucial to protecting your communities.

Risking your safety to publish your work is a difficult task, but today it can be just as challenging to find the truth. Technology allows us unprecedented access to mass amounts of information. What’s more, with social media anyone with a mobile phone can reach millions. That empowers people but also creates a flood of information that is not always verified. The problem – and I hope this is where TechCamp Riga helped you – is sifting through this information, verifying it, and then effectively reaching a wider audience. In some cases, this requires understanding which tools work best and what strategies can make you become a well-known, trustworthy source to your audience.

With more media outlets and news sources on the internet, the average news consumer must wade through a swamp of misinformation to find credible information. As we look at the situation in Ukraine, Russian media has created what Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Doug Franz calls a “house of mirrors” that aims at undermining Ukrainians’ genuine attempt to build a democracy. Under a barrage of lies and misinformation, audiences in the Russian-speaking world often are left either to accept what they hear or become so confused that they decide that everyone lies and no truth exists.

Despite these challenges, there are great opportunities for individuals like you to stand out and make an impact through investigative journalism. You can do digital storytelling using video, sound clips, graphics, and photos. Social media platforms like Facebook, Google Plus, and Instagram not only can amplify your work, but allow you to engage directly with your audience and generate informal networks.

My hope is that you can build on that creative energy that you developed at TechCamp Riga and pass it on to others with whom you work in your communities. I especially encourage you to share your knowledge with the next generation of journalists. Teach your colleague how to effectively search databases. Teach your boss how to use Twitter for investigating a story. Your newly-learned expertise will have the power to bolster the investigative capacity of your team back home, which in turn, will make your content better. In addition, staying in contact with the people you met here will help you build networks for stories down the road.

The world will always need objective, fact-based journalism. And today, people need it more than ever. As I said earlier, it is part of the lifeblood of democracy. So as you reflect back on the past two days, I ask you to do a few things:

  1. Know how incredibly important your work is;
  2. Pursue the truth and tell your stories;
  3. Experiment with innovation and new ideas; and
  4. Stay engaged with each other, with your trainers, and with us.

We truly appreciate your participation in TechCamp Riga, and I wish you all the best in the future. Thank you.