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Freedom of the Press:  A Precious and Precarious Right

It’s in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Children in the US learn about it in school. If you grew up in the States, you’ve probably taken freedom of the press for granted your whole life. Can we afford to do that now?

Current State of Press Freedom

Billions of people around the world live under regimes that severely restrict press freedom. Reporters Without Borders has documented 62 violent work-related deaths of professional reporters so far this year. And 168 journalists are currently imprisoned for their work. The killing of journalists is rare in the United States, but not completely unheard of, as illustrated by the deaths of 4 Journalists and one sales representative at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland last July.

The 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranks 180 countries based on “media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.” Scandinavia dominates the top of the list, while North Korea, China, and Saudi Arabia predictably rank among the worst. And the United States of America?  Number 45, at the very bottom of the first quartile, outranked by Jamaica, Estonia, Uruguay, Ghana, Samoa, Burkina Faso, and Namibia, to name a few.

Trump Fanning the Flames of Suppression and Violence Against Media

In August of this year, experts from the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern over the US President’s rhetoric of animosity against the press, which they characterized as “strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts.” And beyond sowing confusion and distrust by gaslighting, Trump’s rhetoric has done little to support even the mere physical safety of journalists.

Shortly after the murder of Saudi national and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, Trump returned to joking with his base about Montana Representative Gianforte’s assault on a reporter, while hesitating to accept the Turkish investigators’ conclusion that Khashoggi had been murdered in a premeditated attack ordered by the Saudi government. Soon after bombs started arriving at CNN headquarters, Trump launched into his familiar routine of  blaming “fake news”(including CNN) for stoking public anger, calling the mainstream media the “enemy of the people.”

According to the 2018 Annual Report of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the US “president’s cries of ‘fake news’ and other efforts to demean and marginalize journalists are emboldening repressive leaders around the world to take action against their press.” The report details anti-press actions taken by authorities in The Philippines and Sudan, followed by the chilling statistic that imprisonment of journalists worldwide on “false news” charges had more than doubled from 2016 to 2017.

The full effect of Trump’s anti-media rhetoric may not be knowable, but its impact will reverberate across the years, and beyond national borders. The optimists among us may suggest, as put forth in this report from the Brookings Institute, that the news media in the United States may ultimately improve as a result of the constant attacks on it. But at what cost in the meantime?  And at what cost to whom?

2 thoughts on “Freedom of the Press:  A Precious and Precarious Right”

  1. President Johnson was highly critical of the press, especially journalists that reported negative stories about the US conduct and prospects in Vietnam. Nixon carried this hatred to new levels. He would shout at his staff, “The press is the enemy! The press is the enemy! The press is the enemy! (For a good account, see John Avion’s piece in The Daily Beast a year ago: https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-nixons-hatred-of-the-press-led-to-his-downfall-5).
    In part they were politicians who knew that their fate depended on newspapers and TV.
    But Trump has carried this enmity to new levels. Implied in his hyping of Nixon’s phrase from “enemy” to “enemy of the people” is, in fact, treason, punishable by death. (I’ll post a blog on that in a week or so).
    Evidently, Trump believes his base shares his hatred of journalists who don’t flatter him. But why would ordinary voters share that hatred? What do they have against journalists?

    1. Sadly, I believe much of Trump’s base DOES share his hatred of journalists— part of his strategy has been to turn people against that essential component of democracy. And it’s just getting worse. I watched that whole horrific press conference yesterday. Only one journalist has officially lost clearance… so far… You should have heard how he treated the gal from PBS. Folks who have lived under authoritarian regimes—they recognize this shit.

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