SALT LAKE CITY — Senior Latin American news leaders, including many fighting on the frontlines against government intrusion on freedom of the press, left Salt Lake City last week with renewed hope and determination after the Inter American Press Association's 73rd general assembly.
"It has been the privilege of a lifetime to work for the past year alongside media leaders who fight daily in their countries for freedom of expression," IAPA president Matt Sanders said. "These people are my heroes, and many have laid family and friends in the grave in defense of freedom and democracy, freedoms about which we’ve tended to become quite complacent in the U.S."
In fact, 23 journalists were assassinated for their journalism in the past year, said Fabricio Altamirano, publisher and CEO of El Diario de Hoy, a newspaper in El Salvador.
The assembly awarded the IAPA's Grand Prize for Freedom of the Press to Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States who the Washington Post editorial board called "an eloquent advocate for democracy and human rights."
The 250 news media owners, executives, journalists and spouses from across the Americas also rallied around a speech by Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Several said they considered the speech among the best delivered before the IAPA in its seven-decade history.
"We applaud the efforts of IAPA to defend and promote freedom of press and expression throughout the Americas," Elder Christofferson said. "So many of the blessings of life and the prosperity of society rest on these freedoms."
The IAPA represents publications in 24 nations from Mexico to Argentina. The four-day assembly hosted by the Deseret Digital Media included major Latin American outlets like Grupo Clarin, El Universal, El Comercio, La Prensa, El Nuevo Diario and OPSA Group, as well as top U.S. newspapers like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
One of the assembly's core activities is to receive, review and make declarations about reports on the challenges to press freedoms and the state of freedom of expression in each country.
"Unfortunately, the trend in our region isn’t positive," Sanders said. "A human tragedy in Venezuela has unfolded before our eyes over the past decade, with very little international outcry or action. Similar authoritarian regimes have trampled individual liberties like freedom of expression and commerce in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Mexico continues to be a dangerous place for journalists and advocates of freedom of expression."
Altamirano said the IAPA assembly was concerned by reports of threats to press freedom in the United States. One major concern was the plight of independent Venezuelan journalists who have been stripped of their ability to renew their passports.
The general manager of Radio Caracas Television, a cable network shut down by the Venezuelan government in 2007, attended the assembly. Oswaldo Quintana said the government shuttered one of his media group's two radio stations three weeks ago.
Quintana praised Almagro for being valiant. He expressed gratitude for the messages presented to the assembly by Almagro and Elder Christofferson.
"When I see people from different backgrounds and different religions engaged in different efforts but who share basic values of freedom, democracy and the importance of journalism, I feel good because I see there is help available from others who agree on the essential principles that will help society thrive," Quintana, said.
Elder Christofferson praised and encouraged the assembly.
"We honor your efforts to give voice to the voiceless, to shine light on the difficulties of our world and to bestow dignity on the human experience," he said. "May God bless you and protect you as you go forward as ambassadors of freedom and human rights."
This year's assembly will be remembered for Elder Christofferson's speech, IAPA executive director Ricardo Trotti said.
"That was one of the best speeches we've heard in IAPA history," Trotti added, mentioning past addresses by John F. Kennedy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "I've requested a copy to put on our website, because it was given by a wise man. It was the first time we've heard someone tie religious freedom to freedom of the press."
Elder Christofferson said religious freedom does more than protect religious people and institutions.
"It also acts as a catalyst in protecting the whole range of human rights," he said. "The right to speak about God, for example, also embraces and protects the freedom to speak about one’s opinions and beliefs in matters of politics, art, literature, history, morality, or virtually any other topic. Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience become mutually supportive."
Trotti said many attendees approached him to say the speech inspired them.
"Elder Christofferson equated freedom of expression to freedom of faith," said Altamirano of El Diario de Hoy. "In a very moving way and in a very articulate manner, he described the inextricable link of these twin freedoms. It was one of the most insightful speeches I've heard in the 27 years I've sat in the IAPA assembly."
Elder Christofferson showed how basic freedoms work together to bolster each other, what he has called an ecosystem of freedoms that includes religious freedom.
"Because religion occupies such a large space in the spectrum of human life, the range of solutions would be smaller without the voice of religious conscience," he said.
Elder Christofferson quoted from the Declaration of Chapultepec, a list of 10 fundamental principles for the protection of free speech developed at an IAPA conference in 1994 and signed by heads of state throughout the Western Hemisphere.
He said freedom of the press and expression are universal principles that "require our vigilance in preserving them in law and culture. So, in this great endeavor of securing the broad freedoms of the soul, let us all work together — media, religion, education, business — to lift our communities and instill values for our mutual flourishing."
Journalists are ambassadors of freedom and human rights, he added. In fact, he said, the press is at its best when it uses its freedom to promote other freedoms.
"The basic principles of journalistic integrity — objectivity in reporting, detachment from personal bias and disinterested duty to the truth — are essential in facilitating public trust and civil discourse," he said. "All individuals and institutions, including churches, share an interest in contributing to these worthy goals."
Elder Christofferson was at the nexus of a major American conflict over Constitutional freedoms as a law clerk for the judge who ruled that President Nixon had to surrender his Oval Office tapes during Watergate. He and Judge John Sirica were the first to listen to the tapes that led to Nixon's resignation, and he regularly acted as the judge's media spokesman.
"I believe this convention gave the attendees the ability to discuss the importance of the fight that newspapers and journalists are waging for modern society," Quintana said. "The best contribution this organization can make right now is to help people understand the importance of the work newspapers and journalists are doing."
"I live in a country with so many problems, with a lot of evil," Quintana said. "When I heard what he said, he gave me hope, because I realized that there are so many people doing the right thing, trying to help others. That gave me hope and strength to keep going, to keep fighting.
Sanders said he was grateful to host the IAPA assembly.
"Our members have loved every minute of their experience here," he said. "Many have come to me to express appreciation that the assembly informed them professionally and inspired them individually."
Like Baron, Elder Christofferson spoke about trust in media. He said journalists play a crucial role in informing citizens in a democracy and facilitating discussion and debate among people of different backgrounds and beliefs.
"Safety does not come from stifling speech," he added later, "but from giving it a chance to breathe. Not everything that comes from our pens or our mouths will be useful, but when freedom is discouraged, nothing good will come out of them either. To get the sublime, sometimes we have to put up with a little of the ridiculous."