In September, a State Department program brought a group of African journalists to the United States to study journalistic principles and practices. Among other things, we studied the rights involved in reporting, including freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
There were 16 of us from 15 African countries, invited by the US Government to learn more about the mechanics and evolution of journalism and especially investigative reporting.
Over three weeks, we rubbed shoulders with top investigative reporters, visited renowned journalism schools and organizations as well as heard presentations on the far-reaching liberties enjoyed and applied by our U.S. counterparts.
Upon finishing the tour, my colleagues and I agreed the United States’ free and independent media have been fundamental in sustaining democracy and governance. We also agreed there’s a lot to emulate for Africa, where governments often silence and crush critical news media.
We were among some 5,000 foreign nationals from diverse walks of life to visit the US this year to as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, or ILVP. It was launched 70 years ago to address inaccurate views of the United States around the world.
Participants are chosen by US diplomatic missions overseas. So far, more than 200,000 foreign nationals, including current and former heads of state and government, have taken part in studying some of the rights involved in reporting. Among those rights -- freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Christopher McShane is the Africa Branch bureau chief at the State Department. He previously worked as a foreign service officer in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.
"Visitors who come back from the program," he said, "understand the US better and are able to explain the US to people in their countries in an unfiltered way. It’s one thing to have an embassy spokesperson talking about the US and US policy. It’s a different thing to have somebody from that country speak about the US from firsthand experience."
When the leadership program, IVLP, was created, it was designed not only to reshape global opinion about the United States, but also to help participants to improve professionally.
Marilyn Saks-McMillion is a specialist in programming with the Washington, DC-based World Learning, a nonprofit private agency partnering with the State Department on the program. She mentioned two visitors she worked with in 2005.
"One has gone on to win a Nobel Peace Prize and one is now the president of Moldova. There’re many others who’ve gone back home in their fields – whether its journalism or education or healthcare – to do wonderful things," she said.
Cynics call the IVLP a propaganda effort aimed at misleading visitors. But Saks-McMillion says such claims are baseless.
"That’s not the intention of the program," she said. "What’s in it for the American people is having more people who understand and who may not necessarily agree with us, people with a more nuanced understanding of American people and policies and I think an understanding of the distinction between the American government and the American people."
Critics of the recent anti-American protests in the Islamic world would agree with her. The demonstrations were ignited by the circulation on the Internet of a provocative video entitled “Innocence of Muslims.” The short film, which mocks Islam, was not produced by the US government, but by a private citizen living in California.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, including unpopular opinions and criticism of religion. In a speech in September at a meeting of the UN General Assembly, President Obama said the video was repugnant, but that it did not excuse the killing of Innocents or an attack on an embassy.
Nevertheless, the short film led to attacks on foreign diplomatic missions and to the death in Libya of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
According to US officials, the attacks have emphasized the need for a better understanding of the United States.
"That’s true," she said. "I think if you keep in mind that only 5,000 people a year come on the program from all over the world, their role as people who can help explain the US to people back in their countries is really quite small especially when you have other voices locally that may be much louder and more frequent."
"Obviously, there’re great challenges to overcome. Certainly, there’s a long way to go. But the IVLP is a force in making people understand the US better."
The 16 African participants in the program in August agree that it’s a tool for helping people understand the United States -- and that will help them become better journalists.