The effects of President Donald Trump’s persistent attacks on the press are being felt beyond the U.S. border.
New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger met with Trump over the weekend and reportedly shared concerns that the president’s anti-press rhetoric is making American journalists fear for their safety.
“Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” Trump told a crowd of veterans last week. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Although Sulzberger said Trump told him he’d consider his concerns, the president retweeted his son, Eric, Wednesday night supporting a group of angry Trump supporters who surrounded CNN’s Jim Acosta at a rally in Florida, screaming insults, threats and chanting “CNN sucks” in unison.
Trump has also continued attacking the press himself, tweeting Wednesday that the “Fake News Media” is “totally unhinged” and “will be gone” when he is no longer president.
According to experts, the president’s efforts to demonize the press and undermine its credibility are not only leading to concerns over journalists’ safety in the U.S., but are emboldening leaders around the world to crack down on press freedoms.
“President Trump’s rhetoric, in addition to creating a new climate in the U.S. that puts journalists at risk, has also provided cover and a justification for foreign leaders who have been repressing journalists,” Peter Sterne, senior reporter at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told The Globe Post.
After CNN International published an investigation on the slave trade in Libya in November of 2017, Sterne noted how Libyan authorities seized on Trump’s statements that the organization is “fake news” to discredit the report.
“[CNN International] has published the report of slavery in Libya to secure an as yet hidden political objective,” broadcast channel Libya 218 claimed, noting how Trump’s tweet attacking the organization came just days after its report on slavery in the country.
Sarah Margon, the Washington D.C. Director of Human Rights Watch, told The Globe Post that authoritarian rulers around the world have adopted Trump’s term, “fake news,” as a tool to discredit and repress critical journalists in their own countries.
“The term that [Trump] uses, ‘fake news,’ has been used overseas. We have heard it used in Burma. We’ve heard it used in Syria. We have seen the questioning of independent, objective media and attacks against it,” Margon said.
Trump’s terminology has not only been used to discredit journalists abroad, but also to jail them. A number of nations, such as Malaysia, have recently passed laws banning the dissemination of “fake news,” something Trump reportedly told Sulzberger he was proud of.
“What Trump doesn’t seem to realize, or doesn’t care about, is that those are opportunistic laws being passed not to discourage inaccurate reporting, but to discourage critical reporting,” Sterne said. “He doesn’t seem to distinguish between reporting that is inaccurate and reporting that he doesn’t like, he just calls it fake news, which is the same behavior we see from a lot of foreign leaders.”
In 2016, a prison census from the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that two countries used charges of reporting false news to imprison journalists, Egypt and Ethiopia. In 2017, six countries imprisoned journalists on false news charges.
“We’ve seen around the world that this kind of anti-press rhetoric has become a very useful tool for clamping down on legitimate journalism,” Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of CPJ told The Globe Post.
The State Department has condemned such laws, and a spokesperson told The Globe Post that they “continue to uphold this fundamental freedom [of expression] domestically and promote it around the world.”
But experts say the credibility of U.S. efforts to promote press freedoms are undermined by Trump’s statements. Restoring such credibility, Margon said, will take significant effort and time from future administrations.
“You get foreign leaders who feel emboldened not to care about freedom of the press because the United States, the country that is the champion of the free press, no longer cares,” Sterne said.
Trump has also referred to journalists as the “enemy of the people” on multiple occasions, a phrase that is commonly used by authoritarians against the press.
“That term resonates with countries like China, Turkey and Egypt that regularly clamp down on the press and independent reporting under the guise of it being anti-state,” Radsch said.
The CPJ has found that a significant portion of journalists imprisoned around the world are held on anti-state charges, like being labeled an enemy of the state, a saboteur or terrorist.
Trump is not the first president to have a combative relationship with the media. Richard Nixon famously said in private recorded conversations that “the press is the enemy.” Under Barack Obama’s administration, more journalists were charged under the espionage act than under all previous administrations combined.
But experts agree that overt attempts to get the public to distrust and resent journalists is something unique to Trump.
“This idea that we’re undermining a universal human right and denigrating the role of journalism as part of healthy democratic system, I think that’s really dangerous,” Radsch said. “The rhetoric is certainly the most vitriolic we’ve seen in recent history.”
The concern now is that this vitriol could spill over into real violence. Sulzberger told Trump that many media outlets have resorted to hiring armed guards to protect their reporters.
“The language the president and other senior officials have used could lead some Americans to interpret some of those comments as an incitement to violence,” Margon said.