Press freedom under Trump: turbulent times ahead

As the United States is set to swear in a new President who has demonstrated his disdain for a free press not only during the campaign period but even more so in the days leading up to his oath of office, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) examines what is to come during a Trump presidency, as well as his predecessor’s less than perfect legacy of press freedom and access to information.

Despite President Obama’s disappointing legacy for press freedom and transparency, it is still fair to say that the US is poised to fare much worse under President-elect Trump, considering the way he treated the press during the campaign and in the days leading up to inauguration.

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Trump threatened to sue newspapers for publishing stories that are “purposely negative”, pledging to reform US libel laws so that “when the New York Times or the Washington Post writes a hit piece, we can sue them.”

Trump later revoked the Washington Post’s press credentials, as well as other outlets’, stating “based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post.” Trump also insulted and bullied reporters who portrayed him negatively or asked him tough questions, and refused to participate in a Republican debate because Fox News refused to remove its reporter Megyn Kelly as a moderator.

Just last week, Trump held his first press conference in 168 days and refused to answer a question from CNN”s Jim Acosta, referring to his outlet as “terrible” and “fake news.” Acosta attempted to get the President-elect to give a follow-up question regarding his virulent criticism of a CNN report on classified documents presented to Obama and Trump that included allegations that Russian operatives claim they have compromising and personal information on the next President. Acosta later told his CNN colleagues "after I asked and ... demanded that we have a question, Sean Spicer, the incoming press secretary, did say to me that if I were to do that again I was going to be thrown out of this press conference."

The exchange was so outrageous that many of Jim Acosta’s peers came to his defense and the defense of CNN. Even Fox NewsShepard Smith, a major competitor, used his show as a platform to defend CNN’s journalistic standards and to call out President-elect Trump for “belittling and delegitimizing” a news organization that followed these standards.

Trump's staff mimics his hostility toward the press

Spicer, who will be the new White House Press Secretary and Communications Director, has emulated the President-elect’s behavior towards the press both during the transition and the campaign. Spicer has often criticized media for what he considered to be bias in favor of Clinton and activism against Trump, both on Twitter and in media interviews. On Twitter he has called individual journalists or publications, Politico repeatedly, dishonest or bad reporters, much like President-elect Trump has. Spicer has called Trump’s use of Twitter “exciting,” claiming it will continue to be a method of communication for the new President while in office. He opened last week’s press conference with a tirade against Buzzfeed.

Dan Scavino, who will assume the post of White House Social Media Director, has his own history of bullying journalists on Twitter. After watching Fox News’ Megyn Kelly interview Newt Gingrich last fall, Scavino tweeted that Kelly was “not very smart” and “totally biased” and also said “watch what happens to her after this election is over.” Megyn Kelly has since claimed that Scavino’s tweets were part of the reason she and her family have since received violent threats, prompting her to hire an armed guard for six months. Scavino has also repeatedly shared fake news stories from known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ InfoWars website on Twitter.

We are heading into a scary period of uncertainty for press freedom in the United States,” said Delphine Halgand, RSF’s North America Director. “Even more terrifying is that as President-elect, Trump has already set a dangerous example for the world’s press freedom predators; Turkey’s President Erdogan praised Donald Trump after the press conference for ‘putting (CNN’s Jim Acosta) in his place’. President Erdogan is included is RSF world’s press freedom predators list as at least 37 journalists are currently jailed in Turkey. The world is watching. We call on Trump to put a stop to his assaults on the press, focus on improving press freedom around the world, and advocate for American journalists held hostage abroad. Despite our concern for the treatment of journalists by President-elect Trump, now is the time for everyone to rally and push back against attacks on press freedom and speak out on behalf of American and foreign journalists being held in captivity.

Despite the bleak outlook for press freedom under Trump, it bears repeating that his predecessor leaves behind a flimsy legacy for press freedom and access to information.

Obama’s disappointing legacy

Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, has exhibited an obsessive control of information throughout his presidency, which manifested itself primarily through the war on whistleblowers and journalists’ sources, as well as the lack of government transparency, which reporters have continually criticized. The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA operative, was convicted solely on the basis of metadata in January 2015 of disclosing classified information to James Risen and is now serving a 3.5 year prison sentence. Despite commuting whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s sentence three days before leaving office, the war on leakers remains one of the dark spots on Obama’s legacy.

Under Obama’s administration, many journalists were arrested and at times even threatened with criminal charges for their coverage of Black Lives Matter protests and, more recently, protests against the construction of the North Dakota Access pipeline.

Equally worrying is the recent uptick in prolonged searches of journalists at the US border, sometimes including mobile device searches that seriously compromise source protection. RSF has also been made aware of cases of foreign journalists, like Karl Penhaul and Manuel Martorell, who have been prevented from traveling to the US after covering sensitive topics such as Colombia's FARC or Kurdistan.

However, President Obama attempted to reiterate the US’ firm commitment to press freedom during his final press conference yesterday. He said that he regarded “institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press” as threatening to America’s core values. In an apparent jab to his successor, he stated that the press is “not supposed to be complimentary but cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure we’re accountable to the people that sent us here.”

The US currently ranks 41 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index, which is based on data collected from 2015. Given the events of 2016, a drop in the country’s ranking is expected in the next index to be released in the spring.

Image credit: Bryan R. Smith / AFP

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Updated on 19.01.2017