The Global Consequences of Trump's Attacks on the Media

06/23/2017 10:01 am ET

Since Donald Trump’s election, spectators have asked whether the new president's hostile attitude toward a free press would reverberate abroad. To put it another way, would the autocrats and strongmen of the world use Trump’s attacks on the media—such as his February pronouncement that the mainstream media are the “enemy of the people”—as fodder for their own attempts to delegitimize the free press in their own countries?

The answer appears to be yes. We have already seen several examples of autocrats linking Trump’s pronouncements to their own ongoing efforts to attack independent media and discredit the truth.

In Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen stands accused of waging a “systematic campaign” against dissent, the prime minister and his underlings have invoked Trump in threats against the media. On February 25, Phay Siphan, a government spokesperson, warned media entities who threatened “peace and stability” in Cambodia—including U.S.-funded outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia—to reconsider their news coverage, or he would “shut [them] down” and “expel them.” In justifying his decision, Siphan referenced the White House’s move the day before to block several media organizations from a White House press briefing, saying, “President Donald Trump thinks that the news reported by these organizations did not reflect the truth, which is the responsibility of the professional reporters … freedom of expression must respect the law and the authority of the state.”

Days later, on February 27, Prime Minister Hun Sen himself echoed these statements by saying that “Donald Trump understands that [journalists] are an anarchic group.” In his statement, which criticized the media’s focus on human rights, Hun Sen continued, “Anarchic human rights are rights that destroy the nation.”

It should be noted that Cambodia is situated within a region—Southeast Asia—where the government’s dismissal of critical reports as “fake news” can have brutal consequences. As one recent article from Quartz notes: “journalists and press freedom advocates are alarmed by politicians’ eager uptake of two cultural memes spawned by the Trump election and presidency—adviser Kellyanne Conway’s neologism ‘alternative facts’ and the label ‘fake news’—in response to human rights allegations … Asian leaders are using the term to dismiss various allegations of state-sanctioned violence, from drug-related killings in the Philippines to abuses against minority groups.”

But the corrosive effects of Trump’s anti-press rhetoric are not confined to one region. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long presided over a society-wide crackdown on independent commentators and dissenters in the wake of a 2016 coup attempt against him. Erdogan’s government has closed over 160 media outlets and publishing houses, and barred more than 150 journalists. Under his rule, Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world. And Erdogan is a big supporter of Trump’s attacks on the media.

On January 11, during a contentious press conference, Trump said to CNN reporter Jim Acosta, “Your organization is terrible … you are fake news.” The next day, President Erdogan told local government officials at a meeting in Ankara that Trump had “put the reporter of that media group [CNN] in his place.”

Erdogan used the opportunity to imply that CNN had been unfair and biased in their coverage of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, a series of protests against Erdogan which authorities used abusive force to suppress. CNN’s coverage of the protests included reporting on accusations of a “heavy-handed government.” The Turkish government would go on to harass and detain Ivan Watson, a correspondent for CNN International, in 2014 on live television as Watson attempted to report on the one-year anniversary of the protests, with Erdogan later alleging that CNN’s reporting was intended “to stir up trouble in my country.” Today, Trump’s denigration of CNN is a gift to Erdogan—it does the work of trying to delegitimize CNN’s critical reporting of Erdogan’s attitude toward civil liberties for him.

A third example comes from Egypt, where the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has presided over a years-long crackdown on civil society, free expression, and press freedom. In February, after President Trump publicly alleged that “dishonest” news outlets “have their reasons” for not reporting terrorist attacks, the White House released a list of 78 allegedly “underreported” terrorist attacks (commentators quickly pointed out that most of the attacks received wall-to-wall press coverage). Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid “hailed the US administration’s stance,” arguing that “Western media” ignored these terror attacks “in a clear bias.”

In recent months, the Egyptian government has intensified its control over—and censorship of—independent media. This includes efforts to ban the websites of Egyptian and international news outlets on the grounds that such outlets “spread lies” and “support terror.” Against this backdrop, Trump’s allegations of dishonest media offer further cover for Egyptian authorities to crack down on internal dissent, as long as they invoke the magic watchwords of terrorism and biased news.

Donald Trump’s anti-media rhetoric is having a corrosive effect on respect for the essential role of the Fourth Estate, and these effects may be felt for years to come. But they are also being felt right now, across the world, in places where independent media is embattled and under threat, and where authoritarian leaders are hungry to seize any excuse to consolidate their power at the expense of civil liberties. We do not have to speculate about the consequences of such a reckless campaign of intimidation and demonization. They are on view already.

James Tager is Free Expression Programs Manager for PEN America.

Yanaba is a research assistant for PEN America.

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