"Journalism is the frontline of democracy"

Acting US Assistant Secretary for Global Public Affairs Elizabeth Trudeau. Photo: GOPEN RAI

Acting US Assistant Secretary for Global Public Affairs Elizabeth Trudeau was on a two-day visit to Nepal this week. She earlier served as the US Consul General in Northern Ireland and Pakistan as well as the Department of State’s Director for Press Operations and as a spokesperson in Washington, DC. Excerpts of her conversation with Nepali Times Studio:.

Nepali Times: Thank you so much for joining us. Let's start with the objective of your visit, what are you here for?

Elizabeth Trudeau: The purpose of my visit is really Nepal and the people of Nepal. So in my job at the Department of State we focus a lot on making sure that we understand what people around the world are thinking and feeling not only about US policy, but about major issues of the day, food security, climate change. And so really, the whole purpose of coming to Nepal, is to understand what Nepalese are thinking and feeling about the issues that impact all of us.

Nepal is an important partner of the United States. So it's really critical that I came here first, this is a part of a 12-day trip that I'm taking in Nepal is my number one stop.  After this, I'm going to Dubai, where I'm going to be meeting with some of our colleagues, they're talking to some regional media. And then I go to Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan afterwards. And then next month, I'm going to be traveling to Sub-Saharan Africa and visiting a number of countries.

The US government supports democracy, youth, minorities, women, and media around the world. Are those your priorities in Nepal as well?

I think what we hear from the United States government is what the people of Nepal want. We work in partnership with Nepal. And these are the issues that are important to the people here. They care about what youth they're thinking, they care about the rights of women, and they care about having a vibrant society. And so we're just happy to partner with Nepal, and contribute really for a global ecosystem that makes life better for all of us.

Nepal and the US established diplomatic relations 75 years ago, but in the past it had started looking at Nepal through the India lens. We've seen that change now. What are the changing geopolitical dynamics?

What I would say is that Nepal, or any country in the world, needs to be approached as a partner for itself, the United States that doesn't look to Nepal as a country that we use in sort of a balance, we look to Nepal as a partner, as a critical country. And as a country, we want to learn and engage more. What you hear Secretary Blinken Tony Blinken, my boss at the Department of State say is that it's important that we listen as much as we talk. And that's, I think, increasingly what you're seeing in our relationship to Nepal and the people here.

Read also: A survival strategy for Nepal, Kunda Dixit

Disinformation is disenabling democracy around the world, indeed, in our own country and also in the US. A lot of this has to do with social media companies headquartered in the US. How can the US work to combat disinformation, without infringing on freedom of speech?

Such a complex question, and I'm so glad you raised it. And as you mentioned, the United States doesn't have an answer to all of these problems. We see misinformation and disinformation in countries around the world. Just last month, I met with G7 ministers in Berlin. And without fail, every single one of those countries came to the table and said, it is a problem in our country. So the question is, how do we solve it? And I think there's no simple answer, just because there's not one form of it. So it's going to take all of us, it's going to take journalists, it's going to take fact-checking organizations, it will take governments to continue to tell the truth, but most importantly, it's going to take private citizens, because media literacy is a significant part of it. How do you know that you're sharing information that is true? As a citizen, we have a right to know what the truth is. But we also have a responsibility that we have to share only true things. And if that's fact checking, if that's trusting a media, if that's making sure that before we hit share on a social media site, we know the fact. That's on all of us, so it's really going to have to be a comprehensive solution. There is no easy answer.

Is there anything that the US is doing to combat disinformation that Nepal can learn from?

Well, I would ask the same thing. Is there anything that Nepal is doing that the US can learn from? I think one of the things goes back to media literacy. I've met activists right now in Nepal, who are working on media literacy programs in schools. In the United States, we don't do that evenly. Some school systems do other stone, is there a way that we can learn from Nepal, and work together? So our kids who as we know, are most active on social media, learn early what they can trust? And if they don't trust it, how to question it.

What do you think, is the role of mainstream media in the age of social media in safeguarding freedoms, especially in countries like Nepal with a very short history of democracy?

I could not feel stronger about this. Journalism is the frontline of democracy. Journalists are the ones who tell the truth, who tell hard stories, and who hold governments like mine to account. I say this as someone who works for the government, sometimes it's uncomfortable, but it's absolutely necessary. And I would say journalists in the United States are not different in that journalists in Nepal, journalists in the United States have a responsibility to hold governments and corporations and individuals to account and make sure that citizens have the information they need. So they can vote so they can be active in their government. Journalists are everything. I mean, they really are the ones who are on the front lines.

What has been your assessment of democracy and press freedom and the state of disinformation misinformation in Nepal compared to the global context?

I would say, the people I have met during my visit, and I'll say it's too short, I look forward to coming back have been wonderful, just speaking very openly sharing ideas, sharing ideas, not only with us as partners, but among each other. I've been especially impressed with the youth with young people because they bring a passion to this. You had said Nepal is a young democracy so is the United States, we're still learning too. And what I see in Nepal, is that vibrancy, people want to do better. And that's what I'm taking away from this.

Today, I went down and saw some of the cultural heritage sites that we've worked in partnership with the government of Nepal as well as private groups, and saw the way that they were really enmeshed in society, that people were there they were visiting. And that was astonishing. It was beautiful to see not only the way that people of Nepal cherish their heritage, but they make it part of their daily life. And I think there's a lesson for people all over the world on that.

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