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Donald Trump

Beyond ‘fake news’: Donald Trump takes steps against journalists that undermine press freedoms around the world

  • Owen Churchill says the US president’s recent actions and statements amount to giving licence to any authoritarians who want to silence critics and coverage
PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 3:25am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 7:12am

On November 8, one day after the White House shared a doctored video to justify banning a journalist from access to its press briefings, Donald Trump issued a presidential proclamation to mark “World Freedom Day”.

“We stand in solidarity with those who still live under tyrannical governments,” his statement said, “and emphasise that the world will be better off when all governments respect the right of all people to live in freedom”.

Even by the standards of the noisiest presidency in US history, the irony was deafening.

Since entering the White House, Trump and his minions have sought to chip away at one of the bedrocks of a free society: a press that is able to hold those in power to account.

Having determined that simply labelling his detractors “fake news” – rhetoric that has pitted huge swathes of the American population against the media, sometimes with violent results – was not enough, Trump last week took tangible steps to dismantle that bedrock, one guaranteed by the First Amendment.

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The White House revoked CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass for “placing his hands on a young woman” – an intern who was trying to take away his microphone on Trump’s orders.

In an Orwellian twist, the White House press secretary shared a video that was later proven to have been strategically slowed and accelerated at various points to suggest Acosta had been physically aggressive in retaining the mic.

Trump himself undermined this botched attempt to portray the matter as anything other than an attack on critical journalists, when he later suggested that other reporters could face the same penalties as Acosta for not treating him with “respect”.

“You’ve got to treat the White House and the office of the presidency with respect,” he said at a press gaggle, at which he also called journalist and CNN analyst April Ryan “a loser” and “very nasty” – the latest of several personal attacks he has made against black female reporters.

The ensuing outrage includes a lawsuit by CNN to reinstate Acosta’s access and a rare show of solidarity from across the media's political divide, with even Trump-friendly Fox News signing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the network's legal efforts.

The US media is right to be angry. But Trump's onslaught has implications that go beyond the ability of American journalists to do their job.

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At best, an assault on press freedoms by the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy undermines any attempts by US representatives to hold to account other countries that jail, silence or kill reporters.

Be it Beijing refusing to renew the visa of a foreign correspondent who extensively covered human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the Filipino government indicting a veteran journalist and her media outlet known for its critical position on President Rodrigo Duterte or Saudi government operatives murdering a journalist who refused to stay silent, “whataboutism” will increasingly be a weapon of deflection for these countries.

At worst, Trump is gifting a blueprint to authoritarian governments around the world aspiring to tighten their grip over free speech.

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born writer living between New York and Cairo, can attest to that; she has witnessed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government co-opt the “fake news” Trumpism as a legal tool with which to persecute journalists and even social media users who have more than 5,000 followers. Several of her journalist colleagues are in detention – one has been held, without trial, since May.

“Trump has magnified this green light to dictators that journalists are fair game,” she told me. “He enables the worst instincts of countries where there are no checks and balances, in countries where there are no elections where people stand a chance of correcting those abuses.”

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Given Eltahawy’s experiences, “abuses” seems an inadequate word to describe what is at stake for journalists who cover tyrannical governments. In 2011, she refused to bow to pressure from Egyptian authorities to rein in her reporting of the regime – and was beaten by riot police, who broke her arms before taking her into custody. In detention, she was sexually assaulted.

That may seem a world away from Trump's treatment of the White House press pool, but Eltahawy suggests it is a spectrum, one that the president is actively seeking to contract.

“There is a president now – the most powerful man in the world – who has dictator envy, who is authoritarian, and who is actively dismantling everything that [many Americans] thought their country represented.”

If Trump’s World Freedom Day proclamation is to be believed, he intends to keep the light of freedom “burning bright and shining out to the entire world”. For the sake of journalists around the globe – especially in countries where a byline can get you killed – let’s hope this is true news.

Owen Churchill is a US correspondent for the Post, based in Washington