Friend or foe to the media? RSF examines the US presidential candidates’ press freedom records

With more than half the world’s population set to go to the polls in 2024, the next U.S. presidential election bears greater significance than ever before, both for the domestic press freedom climate, and for the example that the country of the First Amendment will set for the world. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is taking the opportunity of 2024’s first primary contests to examine the records and statements on press freedom of the leading presidential candidates.

January 15 marked the official start of the 2024 U.S. presidential election with the Iowa caucuses – the first in a series of statewide primary elections to determine which Republican Party candidate will face off against the Democratic Party incumbent, President Joe Biden, in November. 

American journalism is facing numerous headwinds, including economic pressures that are shuttering newsrooms, trending distrust of the media, and a failure to enact basic press freedom policies. In fact, more than a dozen states and communities in the U.S. have recently proposed or enacted laws to limit journalists’ access to public spaces, including barring them from legislative meetings and preventing them from recording the police.

“Press freedom is a foundational American value enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, but the role of the media continues to be debated, including on the campaign trail, where troubling threats against journalists are already being made. The next president will undoubtedly have a major impact on the state of press freedom in the United States, both through their policy and their rhetoric.”

Clayton Weimers
Executive Director, RSF USA

Donald Trump

The former president and leading Republican candidate has a mostly acrimonious attitude towards the news media. In 2017, Trump famously called the media “the enemy of the people.” During Trump’s time in office, the U.S. saw a decline in its rating on the World Press Freedom Index, and a record number of journalists were arrested. He refused to hold regular press conferences and berated journalists throughout his term. During the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, Trump’s supporters attacked and threatened reporters.

Trump’s Department of Justice brought charges against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, making unprecedented use of the Espionage Act, which lacks a public interest defense and is in dire need of reform. Using this archaic law against a publisher threatens to create a dangerous precedent that opens the door to government prosecution of any publisher, media outlet, or journalist for covering leaked state secrets, a cornerstone of independent journalism. Trump’s CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, even reportedly considered plots to assassinate Assange abroad.

Trump’s authoritarian tendencies likely encouraged a wave of anti-media populism that was already sweeping across the globe, and his disdain for journalists emboldened leaders elsewhere to take harsher measures against their own press – from Bolsonaro in Brazil to Duterte in the Philippines. In one of the most brazen acts of impunity in a crime against a journalist, Trump famously let Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman off the hook for the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

As a candidate for the 2024 election, Trump continues his assault against the media and press freedom. At a rally, he called for specific journalists to be jailed, and his advisors are reportedly discussing ways to circumvent the First Amendment to punish media outlets that provide unfavorable coverage. In December 2023, he threatened to retaliate against opponents on “Day One” of his second presidential term if elected. 

Taken together in context, Trump’s statements on the campaign trail suggest a second term would be even more detrimental to American – and global – press freedom than his first. 

Ron DeSantis

As Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis has frequently railed against the media and decried the protections it enjoys against legal retaliations for what he has called “defamation.” He supported HB 991, a bill which would have stripped away many of these protections in Florida. DeSantis has also called for the Supreme Court to roll back the landmark 1964 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, which created a high bar for defamation lawsuits against media outlets. The current legal standard of “actual malice” is an important protection for the media to reduce the threat of strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs.

DeSantis’ approach to the media has been marked by open hostility towards the mainstream press and a cozy relationship with friendlier, right-wing outlets. His administration has backed efforts to punish local news outlets by withdrawing lucrative public notice contracts. He has frequently tussled with reporters on the campaign trail. He also regularly accuses the media of bias towards the Democratic Party, including during the January 10 CNN debate. 

DeSantis has largely eschewed traditional media, opting instead to grant interviews to conservative blogs, what Nieman Labs referred to as his “cheerleading machine.” The DeSantis administration has also picked high-profile political fights with his state’s largest media company, Disney, in an apparent effort to punish the company for its alleged “wokeness.”

In many ways, DeSantis’ rhetoric towards the media echoes that of Donald Trump, and his record as governor reinforces his image as a politician determined to attack the media and weaken press freedom.

Nikki Haley 

The former U.S. ambassador to the UN and South Carolina governor called for social media companies to eliminate anonymous posting for national security reasons, a position she has since partially walked back. While disinformation online is clearly a threat, Haley’s solution would expose journalists around the world, particularly those living in and reporting on authoritarian regimes, to new dangers, and threaten the protection of journalistic sources.

Haley has also demanded access to social media algorithms to better understand how content reaches people. Algorithmic transparency is key to the public’s understanding of how information is exchanged in the digital space, and thus would represent a positive development for the right to information. As it stands, these algorithms govern every aspect of how content reaches users, but are effectively black boxes with no oversight or guardrails. Even the companies that use them are unable to adequately explain how they work. All of this obscurity makes it more difficult for news consumers to trust the reliability of information they consume.

Joe Biden

The Biden administration has largely normalized press relations in the White House, and President Biden himself proclaimed that “journalism is not a crime.” Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke of the administration’s commitment to press freedom globally at RSF’s World Press Freedom Index launch in May 2023. 

In practice, however, Biden’s track record on press freedom is still lacking. Biden himself rarely gives press briefings. During his presidency, two American journalists have been detained by Russia, and while the State Department was quick to declare the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained,” the same designation has yet to be made for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Alsu Kurmasheva. Meanwhile, no visible progress has been made to bring home Austin Tice, the longest-held American journalist, who was taken hostage in Syria in 2012. 

President Biden’s Justice Department has also continued to pursue the Trump-era Espionage Act case against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, despite growing international calls for his release and efforts by the Australian government to reach a diplomatic solution.

Internationally, the Biden administration has been quick to denounce the poor press freedom records of geopolitical foes like China and Russia, but it has failed to uphold this standard universally. The United States has hesitated to use its considerable influence over Israel to curtail the unprecedented rate of journalist killings in Gaza, continuing to supply the military aid that fuels the war there. Washington has also so far failed to deliver justice for Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in 2022 by an Israeli sniper. President Biden welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a state visit despite the world’s largest democracy’s severe crackdown against its domestic press. He also made a campaign promise to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” after its assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, but has since prioritized closer relations with Riyadh despite its abysmal record of press freedom and human rights broadly.

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