It’s too easy to dismiss President Trump’s constant harping about “fake news” as the bluster of a serial liar.
What could be more absurd than those words from a man who made more than 2,000 false or misleading claims in the first 355 days of his presidency? No wonder the late-night comics have had a field day competing to win a “Fakey” — the term they’ve attached to his promised “fake news” awards.
But Trump’s relentless attacks on news outlets not only threaten a free press at home but have had a negative impact worldwide. “These efforts are being closely watched by [repressive] foreign leaders who are using his words as cover,” writes Sen. John McCain, “as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.” When a U.S. leader delegitimizes the free press, he gives cover to despots to do likewise.
So rather than focus on the Fakeys, check out the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Press Oppressors awards issued in response to Trump’s maligning of the media. The U.S. president received the Overall Achievement medal for Undermining Global Press Freedom. He should be (but won’t be) ashamed of being lumped in with his fellow awardees.
2017 was an exceptionally dangerous year to be a journalist, with 262 documented cases of journalists being jailed for their work. More governments are trying to limit freedom of expression, while some countries viewed as semi- or fully democratic are sliding backward.
The Biggest Backslider in Press Freedom award goes to Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, where any journalists reporting on the Rohingya tragedy are arrested or jailed. Runner-up is President Andrzej Duda of Poland, whose increasingly authoritarian government is muzzling critical media.
Note: Last summer, while delivering a speech on Western values in Warsaw, Trump pledged to team up with Duda to fight “fake news.”
Indeed, the American president’s harping on “fake news” has given legitimacy for repressive regimes to use the term to attack their own journalists. CPJ has documented 21 cases in 2017 in which journalists were jailed on “fake news” charges.
Trump’s embrace of the term also enables foreign leaders to repudiate investigative reports by international journalists. When the International Olympic Committee decided to punish Russia for an extensive state-run doping program conducted at the 2014 Sochi Olympics — a scandal first revealed by the New York Times — Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately denounced the allegations as “fake news”. Enabled by Trump, Putin also labels accusations of espionage against America as “fake news.”
So the president has certainly earned the Runner-Up prize in the category of Most Thin-Skinned Leader. The winner is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, where authorities jail journalists and bloggers for insulting Erdogan or other Turkish leaders. Trump, for his part, has threatened to “open up” U.S. libel laws (a tool used by Erdogan to bankrupt news organizations). Moreover, Trump’s denunciation of individual journalists on Twitter and in speeches could incite rabid supporters to attack.
Of course, when it comes to the award for Tightest Grip on the Media, Trump isn’t in the same league as the winner, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or the runner-up, Russia’s Putin (although some have noted that Trump has called the media “the enemy of the people,” a phrase used by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies).
When it comes to jailing journalists, China was second only to Turkey (73 behind bars). Beijing censors the press and controls the internet. Under Putin, independent media have all but been eradicated, journalists are harassed and jailed, and many have been murdered. Then there’s Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who uses antiterror laws to jail any critic who calls for human rights.
And yet, it is the Overall Achievement award for undermining Global Press Freedom that illuminates the cost of Trump’s fake campaign against “fake news.”
While previous U.S. presidents have criticized the press, they recognized its essential role in a democracy, at home and abroad.
As CPJ notes: “The United States, with its First Amendment protection for a free press, has long stood as a beacon for independent media around the world. Trump by contrast has consistently undermined domestic news outlets and declined to publicly raise freedom of the press with repressive leaders.”
That abdication of America’s role as defender of democratic principles has worldwide repercussions: It’s probably no accident that the number of journalists in prison globally is at a record high.
So when Trump calls the media “the enemy of the people,” Americans should remember that this phrase was used by Stalin to describe his enemies. Trump is not Stalin, and American remains a country of checks and balances, but the president is linking himself with leaders who love to persecute their media critics.
Along with Xi, Putin, Erdogan, Sisi, and Duda, he richly deserves the award bestowed on him by the CPJ.