Democracy requires free and credible media. This is among the critical messages the U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Global Public Affairs Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau recently delivered to Uzbekistan, Washington's strategic partner, and Kyrgyzstan, which the Biden administration sees as "the light of freedom" in Central Asia, despite continuing setbacks. Trudeau stressed that her tour to the region was "not to preach" but to have candid and open conversations with leaderships as well as civil society. She talked with Voice of America's Navbahor Imamova at the State Department.
Full transcript of the interview:
Washington, October 28, 2022
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Thank you so much for being available to talk to us, Assistant Secretary Trudeau.
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: It's wonderful to be here. It's really important to talk to you, talk about our partnership, talk about the trip. So, I appreciate the opportunity.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: We watched your visit to Central Asia early October. And I know that both in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan they were really excited to have you. They don't really get high level visits from Washington as much as they want, as they tell us. And you went there as the head of the global public affairs part of the State Department. What were the messages you carried from the Biden administration to Tashkent and Bishkek?
We had very clear conversations on media freedom and the issue that's not only facing Uzbekistan, but the United States, disinformation.
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: I think they may have been excited for me to go. I was excited to be there. I mean, this is such an important region of the world and both countries are incredibly important individually. But I think the purpose of our travel and where the administration is looking is to make sure that we approach all countries as partners. We approach equally. We sit across the table, and we do as much listening as we do talking. And the important thing about going out and being on travel and going to countries is to facilitate that listening, because how things look from Washington or New York or even Berlin or Paris. Things are very different when you're in Bishkek or Tashkent, because the issues that citizens and governments face, you understand better when you actually can sit and talk.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yet when you visit them, they expect a message from you. They expect to hear something substantial from you, not something that they've been hearing, you know, for many years. There is definitely the willingness to cooperate and work closer on regional issues and do better in bilateral relations. What was the most critical thing you told them from this administration?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: I think it depends on which country. You know, there's going to similarities, of course, but differences as well. In Uzbekistan, it was really focusing on the president's reform agenda. He's been very clear about where he wants to go on that. You've seen significant progress being made on labor rights on the cotton harvest. We also had very clear conversations on media freedom and the issue that's not only facing Uzbekistan, but the United States, disinformation.
We spoke very frankly about Russia's unjust and unprovoked war in Ukraine, and we understand Uzbekistan's view on that. We talked very much about their principled and non-aligned status on that. We also talked about how we can deepen our cooperation and partnership. You know, Uzbekistan is vitally important country for us, and I wouldn't be surprised if they see more visits coming out soon as well.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: In Kyrgyzstan?
... what we have said to our partners in the Kyrgyz Republic is that democracy is best served with a vigorous and open media.
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: In Kyrgyzstan, you know, a different set of circumstances. Again, a strong relationship with the United States. Their media freedom environment is different as we know. So, very frank conversations on the issues that are facing there as they continue to advance legislation on their war on fakes and information like that. But we also talked about some of our shared concerns, shared values and how we can deepen our partnership there.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: The Kyrgyz media reported that you called this part of Central Asia “the light of media freedom”. Obviously, they loved hearing that, especially the officials in Bishkek. But I'm sure you've been watching the developments in Kyrgyzstan. The situation looks pretty disturbing. Mass arrests happening, of activists and bloggers. There have been calls to close down critical media outlets. How concerned are you about these?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: So, the context of that is they've always been had a history of supporting media freedom in Central Asia. They have been leading the way. You know, the recent closure of a station because of the video posting is of grave concern to us. And we've made our views known on that. I think conversations like this need to be very frank. You know, what we have said to our partners in the Kyrgyz Republic is that democracy is best served with a vigorous and open media.
What happened, the conflict in the border, how they facilitated access when that conflict happened, we commanded them. That was a model for the region. So, of course, we see these recent issues with concern.
What we come back with whenever we go to trips is sort of a laundry list... Here's something they want to explore more in partnership with us. So, the onus also is on us to make sure that we meet those asks.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And are you communicating that to them?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: We are.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, when you come back from these trips, how much do you follow up?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: So, some I have to say, it's been great because we met with a whole range of people in both countries, not just government officials and journalists and NGO groups, but we met with a ton of people who are average citizen. And the best thing about social media too, is they can reach out and they can flag, and they can talk. What we come back with whenever we go to trips is sort of a laundry list. Like here's what, here's an ask that they made. Here's something they want to explore more in partnership with us. So, the onus also is on us to make sure that we meet those asks.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, in Uzbekistan, they reported, specifically the office of Saida Mirziyoyeva, President Mirziyoyev’s daughter, said that you told them, and they were very happy to hear this, that you were not there to preach. And yet you, in your job, have to promote U.S. values and U.S. priorities. How do you do that without telling them what to do, how to do? You still want them to go a certain direction, right?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: Well, so what we do, and this is something that Secretary Blinken has been very clear about is this is a partnership of equals. We sit at the UN together. Uzbekistan has one vote; the United States has one vote. And when we sit around a table, we need to listen as much as we talk. And this was consistent across all our conversations on all of this travel, including the part where we say we don't have all the answers. The United States needs to approach with humility and understand that we have as much to learn as we do to share. And I think that that's important wherever we are in the world, is that the United States approaches as partners. Countries have a choice with whom they partner. The United States needs to be at the table.
We talked about the importance of media freedom. We had a great conversation on disinformation and how it impacts citizens in the United States as well as citizens in Uzbekistan...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: What was one thing that really kind of struck you when you talked with president's daughter?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: I would say her expertise and her passion for her country. We talked about a range of issues, women's rights, gender issues. We talked about the importance of media freedom. We had a great conversation on disinformation and how it impacts citizens in the United States as well as citizens in Uzbekistan. And again, this is something which you know as a journalist none of us have the answers to. You know, because this is such a fast moving and fast evolving problem and there's no borders to disinformation. So, we need to address this collectively. How do we make sure our citizens have the tools they need to be able to identify it, to be able to get the facts? And this is something that we focused on quite a lot in that meeting.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Usually the U.S. officials are quite careful in dealing with or engaging the members of presidents' families ... In Central Asia, where you have so many problems of corruption related to nepotism... So, it was surprising to see you meeting a member of the Uzbek leader’s family. How comfortable are you doing that?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: I was very comfortable meeting her as head of her foundation, which is doing remarkable work, not only on women's rights, lifting up women business owners and also media freedom. You know, this is someone who's very passionate and very engaged on the subject. And I'd like to think the United States will always meet people, who care about the issues as much as we do.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, you see her as a relevant person in the system?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: Absolutely.
... media literacy is making sure that people understand how they themselves as citizens can be armed to make those determinations on what's true.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And very quickly on Russia… How do you envision working with the Central Asian governments, who are not doing well, as you know, in terms of media freedom, openness and reforms. Things are quite slow, and things are pretty much in the negative. These are still among the most closed societies in the world. How do you imagine working yourself with them to counter Russian disinformation?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: So, I think it's how we work with anyone to counter Russian disinformation and this goes back to what we talked about before. No one's got an easy answer on this. You know, wherever you are in the world if you're in Bangkok or Sydney or Johannesburg or New York, you're facing the same thing. The flavors different, that the audience is different. The inputs are different. We're all seeing it. So, as we sat in Bishkek and Tashkent, we said what are you seeing? How is that impacting your average citizen? You know, where are they getting information? Who do they trust? And one thing we heard again and again and again is media literacy, making sure that people understand how they themselves as citizens can be armed to make those determinations on what's true.
journalism and media freedom are front line of democracy. This is what matters. This is a war space just as much as a land, sea, and air.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: I talked to some journalists and bloggers, who met you, who were very happy having conversations with you. So, they are thankful, but they want to know what happens now. You brought their messages here. What kind of support can they expect from Washington? Will there be more funding, more media assistance, media development programs coming?
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: I think what you'll see is that continued consistent engagement being responsive to countries’ needs. So, as you know, we do media trainings, we fund media development programs. I think this is an iterative process. You know, as the information environment shifts, I think, collectively we need to meet that demand. Because I've said it before, journalism and media freedom are front line of democracy. This is what matters. This is a war space just as much as a land, sea, and air. So, the question is how are we arming ourselves to be able to adapt?
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Thank you so much.
Assistant Secretary Trudeau: Thank you!