February 25, 2019

US — #WeeklyAddress: February 18 – February 24: Coast Guard lieutenant plotted mass attack on journalists and Democrats

Below are the most notable incidents regarding threats to press freedom in the US during the week of February 18 – February 24:

Coast Guard lieutenant plotted mass attack on journalists and Democrats

US Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson allegedly stockpiled weapons to launch a widespread terrorist attack targeting high-profile American journalists and Democratic politicians. The self-proclaimed white nationalist, whom authorities are calling a “domestic terrorist,” was arrested February 15 on drug and weapons charges, but government officials say this is just the “tip of the iceberg.” During a raid on his Maryland home, officials found a spreadsheet on Hasson’s computer that contain the names of media personalities such as MSNBC hosts Chris Hayes and Joe Scarborough, as well as CNN’s Don Lemon. The list also included  high-ranking current and former Democratic politicians. FBI agents found 15 firearms and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition in Hasson’s basement. Hasson crafted his list of targets based on Google searches including, "where is morning joe filmed," a reference to the political talk show Scarborough hosts. On February 21, a Maryland federal court judge ordered Hasson remain behind bars without bail for the next two weeks as prosecutors continue to build their case. The following day, when asked by a journalist whether President Trump should tone down his anti-media rhetoric, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated the president hasn't "at any point" done anything "but condemn violence, against journalists or anyone else." However in July 2017 President Trump tweeted an edited video that depicted him punching a figure representing CNN, and at an October rally in Montana, the president praised Congressman Greg Gianforte’s bodyslam of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.


Veteran New York Times reporter detained, rejected from Egypt

New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick was detained by Egyptian security officials when he arrived in Cairo on February 18 before being expelled. Officials reportedly confiscated his phone and left him without food or water for seven hours before being “forced” on a flight to London the following morning. Kirkpatrick served as the Cairo bureau chief for The Times from 2011 to 2015 and published a book about Egypt’s 2013 military coup. Times colleagues tweeted in solidarity. “We’re concerned about reports of the unexplained refusal of entry to Egypt of a U.S. citizen New York Times journalist. We have raised our concerns with Egyptian officials,” Michael Slackman, international editor of The New York Times, told his newspaper in its reporting on the incident. Authorities in Egypt did not provide an explanation for Kirkpatrick’s detention. Since seizing power in 2013, Egypt President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has cracked down on the media, with at least 32 Egyptian journalists currently detained in Egypt, according to information gathered by RSF.

Justice Clarence Thomas says Supreme Court should reconsider landmark libel decision

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a solo opinion on February 19 saying the Court should consider overturning a 55 year-old landmark ruling that created a higher threshold for public figures to sue news organizations for libel. In his opinion Justice Thomas called the ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan—the 1964 decision that established “actual malice” must be proven for reporting on public officials to be considered libel—and other similar cases "policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law." His position mirrors that of President Donald Trump, who has frequently said it should be easier to sue for libel in the United States. At a 2016 campaign rally in Texas, Trump said, “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before." As recently as January 2018, Trump said he would take a “strong look at our country’s libel laws” following the publication of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Michael Wolff’s book which portrayed a dysfunctional Trump administration White House. The extent of control President Trump actually has over libel law is limited given that there is no federal libel law.

President Trump calls NYT ‘enemy of the people’ in tweet, publisher responds

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger responded to a series of tweets sent out by President Trump on February 20 that attacked the media, and The New York Times in particular. The president wrote, “The Press has never been more dishonest than it is today,” in one tweet before calling The Times the “Enemy of the people,” in another. 

Later the same day, Sulzberger released a statement supporting his paper and reiterating concerns he has expressed before that the president’s anti-press rhetoric encourages violence against journalists, both domestically and abroad. The statement also said, “The phrase ‘enemy of the people’ is not just false, it’s dangerous.” Sulzberger previously urged the president to abandon his use of the term as recently as last month during a visit to the Oval Office. Regardless, the president continued to share inflammatory tweets through the end of the week. On February 22, he retweeted a caricature of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer reporting on the Mueller probe and added the caption, “Fake News is so bad for our Country!” Since February 15, President Trump has referred to the media as "the enemy of the people" twice and tweeted the term “fake news” three times.


The United States ranks 45th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.


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