Words and consequences

As a presidential  candidate Trump dissed reporters  as being ‘slime, ‘dishonest slime’, unfair’, ‘not good people’ – and much more.  In the land where free speech is a constitutional guarantee, he  threatened to  open up libel laws and added: “…we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”  Much of this  must have been shrugged off by reporters covering his campaign as  Trump’s  bog standard rhetoric.

But then  the Candidate became the President and over his 18 months in office, intensified  his attacks on the media.

“Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!” he twittered as  recently as  June 13 this year. Sixteen days later America had to confront yet another home-grown massacre, not in a school this time, but in the newsroom  of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland.

In the months before  this happened,  a group of around 30 press freedom organisations (including the Committee to Protect Journalists,  and the Columbia Journalism Review, where this column by Joel Simon was published in January this year), came together soon after the election to create a new database and website. It was dedicated to documenting every serious press freedom incident in the United States. A year into the Trump administration, here are the headlines from the Press Freedom Tracker for 2017.

  • Journalists have been arrested 34 times in the United States in the last year.
  • Twenty-nine of those arrests were at protests. These occurred in Standing Rock, where protests erupted over the Dakota Access pipeline; in St. Louis, where people took to the streets in response to a police shooting; and in Washington, DC, where there were sizable protests during Trump’s inauguration.
  • Nine of these journalists were charged with felonies. At least one case went to trial.
  • Fifteen journalists have had their equipment seized.
  • Forty-four journalists have been physically attacked in the last year. The attackers span the political spectrum, from white nationalists to anti-fascists.

This year, journalist Manuel Duran was arrested while reporting on a protest in Memphis, Tennessee. Though all charges against him were later dropped, he was placed into the custody of Immigration & Customs Enforcement and could be deported.

On June 11, 2018 Michael Nigro, a freelance photojournalist on assignment for Truthdig, was arrested while covering a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Jefferson.

In a tweet on May 9, 2018, President Trump suggested that news organisations publishing negative news about him should have their press credentials revoked.

All  of this  happened in the United States, but Senator John McCain  has broadened the debate. Simon quotes him as saying in a recent Washington Post  op-ed, “Trump’s attempts to undermine the free press … make it more difficult to hold repressive governments accountable.”

Simon noted that leaders from more than a dozen countries, including Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Myanmar, China, and Cambodia, have embraced the term “fake news” and used it to de-legitimise critical journalism that they don’t like. Of the record 262 journalists in prison around the world at the end of last year, 21 are imprisoned for publishing “false news,” more than double the previous year.

In March this year, Chinese state media dismissed a prominent rights activist’s account of torture as “fake news.” And in May, the People’s Daily ran an op-ed with the headline, “Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years.”

“Where the Trump effect has played out most dramatically is outside the borders of the United States. The president’s overheated rhetoric attacking the media has weakened global norms, eroded US influence, and emboldened repressive leaders who are jailing critical journalists at a record rate” wrote Simon.

Meanwhile back home, four journalists and one salesperson died in the  Annapolis shotgun attack which  police described as ‘targeted’.  The White House offered its thoughts and prayers…

Share this:
Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.