For decades if not longer, repressive leaders around the world have defended restrictions on freedom of the press by citing examples of Western governments failing to live by their own professed standards.
So when, in late-2016, Canadian photojournalist Ed Ou was unable to report from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests because he had been barred from entering the United States, the Turkish government issued a press release describing it as yet another example that in countries that frequently criticize Turkey for its treatment of the press, “journalism is not as rose-tinted as it may seem.” Ou, who one year earlier had been blocked by Turkey from entering that country, said he “didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Although the Ou incident took place during the waning days of the Obama Administration, throughout the first 100 days of the presidency of Donald J. Trump — a man who loves to disparage, insult, and rail against the media — the trend has continued. President Trump’s oft-tweeted “fake news” epithet, for example, has already been adopted by repressive governments such as China, Syria, and Russia. And when Trump attacked a correspondent during a February press conference, he was cheered by Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the world’s worst jailer of journalists, according to CPJ’s annual global imprisoned census.
Of course, all U.S. presidents complain about how they’re treated in the press. Some have gone further: During Obama’s first term, the Department of Justice used the Espionage Act to conduct an unprecedented number of leak investigations, several of which ensnared journalists. Generally, however, U.S. presidents have criticized the media while also acknowledging the essential role of a free press in American democracy, and while pledging to uphold the First Amendment.
In this respect, unfortunately, Trump — who has made no strong statements in support of the press, and whose administration, according to Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, has “looked at” changing libel laws to restrict press freedom — stands apart.
During his first 100 days as president, Trump rolled out the red carpet at Mar-a-Lago for Chinese President Xi Jinping and at the White House for Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — two of the world’s worst jailers of journalists. A meeting with the aforementioned Erdoğan, meanwhile, is reportedly on the horizon — and Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, a country where journalists are routinely murdered with impunity, was recently extended an invitation of his own.
High-ranking members of Trump’s cabinet have followed suit. Although the Department of Justice during Obama’s second term worked out an agreement with the media to ensure fewer journalists were involved in leak investigations, Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated in his Senate confirmation hearing that he was not committed to honoring these guidelines. Given Trump’s tweets about leakers and his claims that reporters should not use anonymous sources, this position is alarming to U.S. journalists. But for journalists in countries where protecting sources can be a matter of life and death, the precedent it could set has far worse implications.
The State Department has generally tried to articulate support for “American values,” which include human rights and freedom of the press. But in March, unfortunately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke with tradition and declined to present the State Department’s Human Rights report in person. Further, the Trump Administration has recently threatened to drastically cut funding for international organizations, many of whom play a key role in establishing international norms in support of free expression.
Indeed, it is this system — constructed over a period of years and by a set of international agreements — which we celebrate every May 3 for World Press Freedom Day. Thanks to a public commitment to these standards, previous U.S. presidents have been able to exert their influence around the world on behalf of press freedom, however inconsistently. The issue is not partisan, either. The Obama administration raised concerns about press freedom abuses in Egypt, Ethiopia, Turkey, China, and Vietnam; former President George W. Bush told the Today Show that he raised the issue with Russia President Vladimir Putin.
Sadly, President Trump has expressed no such interest in protecting this framework or setting a positive example. In fact, while speaking at a rally in Pennsylvania for his 100th day in office, Trump said the media was a “disgrace” and that members of the press were “incompetent, dishonest people.”
These comments are even more alarming for being part of a broader trend. Among former regional leaders such as Hong Kong, Japan, South Africa, and Kenya, press freedom has deteriorated. Still, because he is the president of the United States, Trump’s comments are different. As the award-winning Salvadoran reporter Óscar Martínez put it, “Trump inhabits the global showcase. In attacking the U.S. press, he attacks all of the press and puts it at risk.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The sixth paragraph has been corrected to reflect that el-Sisi met with Trump at the White House.
Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Alexandra Ellerbeck is senior Americas and U.S. research associate.