US to cover costs for journalists under legal pressure

·3-min read

The United States will offer funding to help journalists overseas survive frivolous lawsuits meant to silence them, as part of a campaign to support democracy, USAID chief Samantha Power announced Thursday.

Power, herself a former reporter, said President Joe Biden's administration was setting up the "Global Defamation Defense Fund" to counter the "crude but effective tactic" increasingly used to silence journalists.

"We will offer the coverage to survive defamation claims or deter autocrats and oligarchs from trying to sue them out of business in the first place," she said at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

Democracies need to set rules "as autocrats grow savvier in their attempts to control and manipulate people," she said. "We need to help support a free and fair global press to hold leaders to account."

Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, did not outline how the fund would work or whether it would support journalists in countries allied with the United States.

Biden plans next month to hold a summit to back democracy, seeking to show a sharp change from his predecessor Donald Trump who embraced autocratic leaders, denounced the role of independent media and inspired a mob that attacked the US Capitol on January 6 in hopes of undoing Biden's victory.

Critics will likely point to Washington's continued efforts to extradite from Britain the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who considers himself a journalist and faces the rest of his life in prison for the leak of classified US documents.

Power, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations under former president Barack Obama, has written about her struggles to reconcile idealism and government service.

Asked if the United States could support democracy in light of its own record at home, Power pointed to the new fund for journalists and said, "In many cases, we're all they have."

"If they can access those resources, that's the difference between being able to write the story to hold the corrupt mayor accountable or the corrupt police chief accountable or not potentially," she said.

- Shift to local groups -

In wide-ranging remarks, Power also said that the United States would sharply increase how much assistance is channeled through groups on the ground.

"If we truly want to make aid inclusive, local voices need to be at the center of everything we do," she said.

In a first effort, she announced an initiative to direct $300 million over the next five years to organizations in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- key nations for the Biden administration as it seeks to reduce the causes of migration.

The groups will carry out programs in areas that include fighting corruption, combatting sexual violence and encouraging sustainable growth.

Despite broad support for a shift, the percentage of US assistance globally that goes through local groups has inched up only from four to six percent over the past decade, she said.

Power set a goal of directing at least one-quarter of USAID funds through local groups over the next four years, including by authorizing staff on the ground to award more contracts.

She said that USAID has been hesitant because groups on the ground often lack the accounting and legal expertise expected in the United States.

But she said the shift would help increase capacity so that the "impact will be sustained long after the relationship with USAID ends."

Power also said USAID would promote greater work by the US private sector, including religious groups, and announced a separate fund to streamline bids for contracts.

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