“Be careful. Why are they funding this trip, covering all your expenses, plus giving you extra money? What is their aim? I am just warning you as a friend to be skeptical.”
This was what a prominent Turkish author, who also happens to be my friend, told me when I first announced that I was selected for WPI journalism fellowship. He was not the only one. Many others issued similarly worded “warnings” and “reminders.” I can say, that is pretty much what an ordinary person would think if told an American organization is inviting a foreign journalist to the United States. Statements of suspicions are uttered and even conspiracies are offered. For many back in my country, even those who are highly educated and intellectual, there must be some “hidden agenda” behind such an invitation. The stated mission is just a cover of that hidden agenda.
Take the mission of WPI: “Join us on our mission to promote and strengthen the principles of a free press internationally.” That cannot be, the argument would go, true. Why would anyone in the United States promote and strengthen the principles of a free press internationally? Was I myself thinking in the same way? For sure, I was not trying to uncover any agenda beyond the stated one. But, I confess, I also did not get it. Now, after all these weeks pass, I get it. And I appreciate it a lot. What did I get?
During this fellowship we have visited major media outlets, universities, think tanks, and even a prison. We have met journalists, politicians, academics and, most valuably, ordinary Americans who opened their homes and hearts to us. In almost every meeting, even in those we held in the San Quentin prison, we have talked about press freedom. I am still awed by the discussion we listened on the First Amendment. What does freedom of press really mean? Why does it matter? What is its role in protecting other freedoms? That might be true, the United States has problems when it comes to freedom of press. But, we are also left with no doubt that that freedom is so vital, dear and indispensable to people in this country. It is not just an abstract principle people pay lip service to. It is a principle actively lived up to and respected and protected. How does bringing 10 foreign journalists to the United States each year promote and strengthen the principles of a free press internationally? Well, by making them see with their own eyes how that principle is so alive in this country.
I cannot speak for others. But, I am sure, I will not be working in an environment where freedom of press is as dear and cherished as it is in the United States. The taste of it I got during the fellowship is what I will go back with. That taste is the most important addition of this program to my life and my career.
If I have not seen myself how dear freedom of press is to Americans, I would not get why WPI is happily willing to undertake such a monumental task of hosting 10 foreign journalists and showing them around the United States. WPI is doing it because that principle, freedom of press, is so dear.