The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s attacks on media blamed for decline in U.S. standing in press-freedom survey

President Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 21, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump considers much of the news media his adversaries, as can be confirmed with a single visit to his Twitter profile. He frequently decries “fake news,” has referred to reporters as the “enemy of the American people” and singles out outlets in critical tweets. And while the United States has laws in place to protect journalists, a new report states that the country’s overall level of press freedom has declined since Trump took office.

The watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday released its annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries from highest to lowest levels of press freedom. The United States fell in the ranking, as it did last year — this time, two places down to 45th. Norway remained on top, with North Korea as its polar opposite.

Reporters Without Borders compiled the index by analyzing expert opinions and numerical data on the frequency and intensity of violent acts toward journalists. The experts answered a questionnaire with six focus areas: environment and self-censorship, infrastructure, legislative framework, pluralism, media independence and transparency.

Hostility toward the media has become “steadily more visible,” the report states, and verbal violence toward journalists often veers toward becoming physical. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, which fell to 133rd, told reporters in 2016 that they “are not exempted from assassination.” President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic, which fell 11 spots to 34th, held a replica rifle inscribed “at journalists” during a news conference last fall.

The report refers to comments from White House officials, as well as violent, CNN-targeting memes the president retweeted as examples of anti-media rhetoric. Last year, Reporters Without Borders called for charges against journalists covering the Dakota Access pipeline protests and the St. Louis protests against police brutality to be dropped. These charges are referred to in the report as “press freedom violations.”

Trump’s comments have amplified a “disappointing” climate that existed before his presidency, according to the report, as evidenced by the international popularity of the term “fake news.”

“The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies,” Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe Deloire said in the report. “Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.”