For the past four days, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been calling for authoritarian governments in eastern Europe and Central Asia to ease restrictions on press freedom despite criticism for his own treatment of journalists at home.
In Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over the weekend and again on Monday, Pompeo raised human rights issues, including freedom of the press, with his interlocutors and denied any double-standard was at play.
Pompeo defended his unhappiness with a National Public Radio interviewer who asked him last month about the ouster of the former ambassador to Ukraine. Further, he said his conduct, which the journalist said included berating her with profanities once the interview was over, did not demonstrate a lack of respect for a free press.
Pompeo responded in an official statement that the interviewer had “lied” to him, and he called her conduct “shameful.” He said the incident was “another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt” President Donald Trump and his administration. NPR said it stood by its journalist's reporting.
Pompeo has complained about NPR's reporting in the past, notably over its coverage of the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
NPR later said another of its reporters was removed from the pool of journalists traveling with Pompeo on his current trip. That led to a second flurry of criticism from commentators, including former U.S. officials and diplomats, who said Pompeo had lost credibility to push foreign governments to respect press freedoms.
Yet, in Tashkent on Monday, Pompeo praised the Uzbek government for “loosening restriction on the media” and said the U.S. “looks forward to further progress” in the area.
And, in Belarus on Saturday, he said the U.S. prioritizes respect for human rights, a strong civil society, and freedom of the press in every corner of the world" and that the country had more work to do on those issues before American sanctions could be lifted.
On Sunday, an interviewer from Radio Azattyq in Kazakhstan asked Pompeo “what kind of message” the NPR incident sends to countries whose governments "routinely suppress press freedom.” The station is an affiliate of U.S.-funded Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty.
Pompeo denied that the NPR interview was any more “confrontational” than any other interview he has given and said that journalists are allowed to ask him anything they want.
“In America that’s the greatness of our nation: Reporters like yourself get to ask me any question and all questions,” he said. “We talk openly. We express our view; they ask their questions. That’s how we proceed in America.”
He said the issue of which reporters are allowed to travel on his plane depends on "certain sets of behaviors" that involve honesty and telling the truth. “When they’ll do that, they get to participate, and if they don’t, it’s just not appropriate, frankly, it’s not fair to the rest of the journalists who are participating alongside of them.”
Pompeo said that sends a “perfect message."
“It’s a perfect message about press freedoms. They’re free to ask questions,” he said, noting that a third NPR reporter attended his news conference in Ukraine on Friday. “It’s wide open in America. I love it. I hope the rest of the world will follow our press freedoms and the great things we do in the United States.”