The election of the 45th president of the United States has greatly accelerated a decline in press freedom that was already well underway under his predecessor. In the past year, the United States fell further in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and now ranks 43rd out of 180 countries. Donald Trump’s repeated diatribes against the Fourth Estate and its representatives – accusing them of being the “enemy of the American people”, ”among the most dishonest human beings on earth”, and deliberately spreading “fake news” – compromise a long US tradition of defending press freedom.
And it’s not just the White House that’s had that problem. Rex Tillerson has time and again restricted press access to the inner workings of his actions as Secretary of State. Since the new administration took office in January, there were no regularly held daily press briefings at the State Department up until June, when it was announced that briefings would be held twice a week by State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert. Yet Mr. Tillerson continues to make a clear effort to avoid interaction with the media, and often walks away from questions without acknowledging or answering them.
The lack of access follows him abroad. During the President’s May visit to Saudi Arabia, 168th in the index, American journalists were excluded from Tillerson’s press conference—a country in which three journalists and eight citizen journalists are currently imprisoned. One of them is blogger Raif Badawi, a Saudi activist who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years of imprisonment, five of which have already been served. On a separate occasion, Secretary Tillerson did not include the press when traveling to Russia where he met with President Vladimir Putin behind closed doors, with no reporters present. Russia, 148th in the index, is a notoriously repressive and deadly environment for journalists who seek to report information independent from Kremlin propaganda.
In addition to anti-press rhetoric, access has also been a key issue since Trump took office. Up until the recent appointment of a new White House Communications Director, at the time Anthony Scaramucci, there hadn’t been an on-camera, live audio White House press briefing in three straight weeks.
Trump’s coordinated attacks on the press have also helped to disinhibit attacks on the media almost everywhere in the world, including in democratic countries. The world’s press freedom predators have seized on the notion of “fake news” to muzzle the media on the pretext of fighting false information, and many of them have taken recent statements by Trump as a means of justifying their repressive policies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has endorsed Trump’s allegations that the CNN television network was guilty of broadcasting “fake news” in its report on ties between the US president and Russia. Turkey is now the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists with more than 100 currently detained. Approximately 150 media outlets have been closed and journalists are enduring mass trials accusing them of absurd charges such as being accomplices to terrorism. The situation of Turkey’s media was already worrying but has become critical under the state of emergency proclaimed after the July 2016 coup attempt. The country now ranks 155th in RSF’s index.
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen appeared to have taken his cue from Trump when he said of journalists in February: “Donald Trump understands that they are an anarchic group.” Two days earlier, his spokesman issued what he called a warning to foreign media outlets, threatening to “crush” those that endanger “peace and stability” and citing Trump’s treatment of the press as a justification for the warning. That same month President Trump proclaimed that “the press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.” Cambodia ranks 132nd in RSF’s index.
Just as Trump and former White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, warned that they will “hold the press accountable,” so has Tanzania’s President John Magufuli accused newspapersof inciting dissent and has warned that “their days are numbered.” Known as “Tingatinga” (“bulldozer” in Swahili), Magufuli recently demonstrated the ease with which he could attack media freedom when he fired his information minister for criticizing a raid by Dar es Salaam’s governor on a radio and TV station and for saying he had a duty to protect the media and free speech. Tanzania ranks 83rd in the index.
In Egypt, 161st in RSF’s index, journalists are frequently accused of disseminating false information whenever they criticize the government, or report on sensitive issues that upset it. This widespread practice leads to self-censorship for fear of joining the long list of colleagues who have been prosecuted and imprisoned. There are at least 22 journalists and bloggers currently detained in Egypt.
Last month in Bahrain (164th) prominent citizen journalist and human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, was convicted of “spreading rumors and false information” in media interviews for local and international TV channels in 2014 and 2015 about the human rights situation in his country. He was sentenced to two years in prison, though he has been detained since his arrest in June 2016.
But Trump’s dangerous influence doesn’t only manifest itself in traditionally repressive regimes. In Italy, 52nd, Beppe Grillo, the leader of the political Five Star movement, accused Italian journalists of “manufacturing false news” designed to harm his party. He called for the creation of “a popular jury to determine the veracity of the news published”. Earlier this year, Trump sent his supporters a “Mainstream Media Accountability Survey” saying “you know that I don’t trust
the media to report on anything we achieve. Instead, you — the American people — are our last line of defense against the media’s hit jobs.”
With the media-bashing and restricting of access happening at home, it’s no wonder that the most repressive regimes of the world are feeling emboldened to do the same. What could seem like merely populist rhetoric against the media is actually used as a justification to imprison journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists all over the world. Will the people of the First Amendment let this happen?