Global press freedom has long been in decline and is now at its lowest point in the past 13 years, according to Freedom House’s latest assessment, released last week. What is new, and especially disquieting, are the mounting pressures on the media in the United States, including sharp attacks on reporters by the Trump administration. This raises the question of whether America will continue to serve as a model for other countries.
The United States remains an oasis, one of the few places in the world where aggressive journalistic investigation can be practiced with few legal restrictions and little physical danger to reporters. But even here, press freedom has been weakening for some time, well before the inauguration of Donald Trump.
Recent administrations have battled the press, even threatening some reporters with jail time for refusing to identify sources. An entire news organization (Gawker) was wiped out because of a successful lawsuit funded by a billionaire. Meanwhile, outlets that profess to be legitimate news media but are in fact propaganda instruments hold the ideals of neutrality and honest reporting in disdain.
Since Trump’s rise to the presidency, however, matters have taken a turn for the worse. The new White House derides and belittles journalists and media organizations in the hope of undermining the credibility of the press. In so doing, the administration is aggressively promoting the notion that nuance and facts are irrelevant — a staple concept of Russian information warfare.
No president in recent memory has forged a record of such unrelenting scorn for the media, and at such an early stage in an administration, as has President Trump. In so doing, the administration provides welcome ammunition to those in other countries working both to destroy independent media in their own societies and to undermine the principle that freedom of thought and open access to information are the rights of all people, everywhere.
Russia and China represent the vanguard in the war against press freedom worldwide. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have intensified restrictions on their own journalists, leading to a string of murders in Russia and prosecutions in China. Both governments have also tried to shape the global media environment through propaganda and, in the case of China, a campaign to destroy the very concept of a global Internet. It’s harder for the United States to meaningfully condemn such actions if its administration maintains that fact-based journalists are the enemy of the American people.
Authoritarian rulers in countries as diverse as Venezuela, Turkey and Ethiopia are mimicking the Moscow-Beijing playbook, throwing reporters in jail, subjecting them to violence, and suppressing Internet freedom and social media. In all these cases, Trump and his entourage have either remained silent or actively abetted bad behavior. (Turkey, to name but one example, now accounts for one-third of the world’s imprisoned journalists — yet that didn’t stop Trump from congratulating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his recent victory in a constitutional referendum that entailed a broad crackdown on the media.)
Equally disturbing are recent setbacks in democracies such as Hungary and Poland, where the decline in press freedom has been accomplished with remarkable speed. Poland’s Law and Justice party government is systematically undermining the independent media, asserting control over public broadcasters. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party has gradually warped the media sector in its favor through politicized ownership changes and the closure of critical outlets. Both countries, members of the European Union and NATO, are allies of the United States. Yet Washington is doing nothing to make its influence felt.
The United States will not necessarily follow the path of those faltering democracies, much less of Russia and China. Compared with many other democracies, the United States has stronger constitutional guarantees of press freedom and freedom of speech, and more robust legislative and judicial systems with records of independence in the face of executive overreach.
The danger is that the new U.S. leadership may, in effect, be offering a license to governments elsewhere that have cracked down on the media as part of a more ambitious authoritarian strategy. There is little doubt that autocrats everywhere are watching what the United States does — and what its new president says. The duty of the press is to hold government accountable, not be its spokesperson or propaganda arm. The government has a duty to respect that obligation.
When political figures in the United States deride the media for helping citizens hold their government accountable, they encourage foreign leaders with autocratic goals to do the same. When U.S. officials step back from promoting democracy and press freedom, journalists beyond American shores feel the chill. A weakening of press freedom in the United States would be a setback for freedom everywhere.