Before the election, some political scientists cautioned in an open letter that Trump, as president, would endanger press freedom. Scholars who view his presidency as unprecedented in the United States have compared him with illiberal but democratically elected leaders elsewhere. Should President Trump follow the playbook of his populist contemporaries in Latin America and Europe, it could lead to a slow but steady dismantling of democracy.
Our research on government-media relations in Latin American countries indicates that the White House’s anti-press rhetoric should cause concern.
One source of that concern comes from Trump’s president-versus-the-press mentality, which resembles the adversarial attitude of many Latin American presidents. This mentality has had serious consequences. According to Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, freedom of the press in Latin America declined dramatically over the past two decades. Granted, journalists in Latin America face various threats from organized crime (including attacks on reporters who investigate drug cartels), corrupt local politicians and complicit courts. But sometimes, the president is to blame. In a comparative study of 18 countries, we analyzed why and how democratically elected presidents contribute to the deterioration of media freedom.
Why do some presidents target the news media as the enemy?
To answer why, we looked at which conditions motivate presidents to treat the media as their primary foe. First, outsider presidents who win when traditional political parties fall apart need a new opponent, so they target the media instead.
Second, presidents target the media when they clash with the media on ideological grounds. Several presidents elected during Latin America’s “Left Turn” justified their actions by denouncing the mainstream media’s conservative bias — a reasonable characterization in these countries. They argued that the media’s slant obstructed democracy and needed to be curtailed.
How do presidents limit freedom of the press?
To begin with, Latin America’s leftist presidents ratcheted up rhetoric denouncing the media as the opposition and cast doubt on the objectivity and truthfulness of the news. For instance, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa tore up newspapers to demonstrate his disdain for the media — his “worst enemy.” The presidents’ grandstanding successfully roused public contempt for the media.
Next, presidents circumvented hostile media by communicating directly with citizens through call-in talk shows and the like. Also, they frequently made official announcements, which outlets were required to broadcast.
Ultimately, Latin American presidents turned their words into action. They punished negative coverage with tactics such as severely limiting journalists’ access to government sources or withdrawing state advertising. For example, former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner reduced advertising for state-owned enterprises in outlets she viewed as her detractors, and rewarded government-friendly outlets with large ad buys. “Buying” favorable coverage occurs in other Latin American countries, too.
Several presidents, under the pretext of increasing media pluralism, sponsored new media laws to break up large conglomerates, expand government and community media, or create government agencies with oversight of news media.
During the most serious conflicts — dubbed “media wars” — Latin American presidents used extreme measures to silence their most ardent critics among the media. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s former president, refused to renew the broadcast license of the country’s oldest private television network. De Kirchner’s government raided media offices on trumped-up charges of tax fraud. The current presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador sued journalists and media outlets under statutes that criminalize libel or penalize content insulting to the president. In many Latin American countries, such laws carried over from prior authoritarian regimes.
Where Latin American presidents launched these wars, democratic institutions weren’t able to protect the media’s freedom and independence.
Could Trump launch a ‘media war’?
Our research points to similarities between Trump’s anti-media rhetoric and that of Latin American presidents who’ve challenged the news media.
Trump is amplifying preexisting hostility between many Republican politicians and the media — which slowly eroded public trust in the media. As of September 2016, public confidence in the news media hit an all-time low in the United States, especially among Republicans. Well before the last election, polls showed that a plurality of Americans perceived a liberal bias in the media. Trump’s supporters back his contention that the media treat him unfairly.
Faced with unflattering campaign coverage, Trump pledged to weaken U.S. libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets. And, like his Latin American counterparts, he communicates directly with the people via Twitter to counteract media “dishonesty.” Trump has labeled the media “the opposition party.”
However, the United States differs in important ways that might prevent Trump from muzzling the media like many of his Latin American peers. First, mainstream media in the United States present a broader range of views than do the media in most Latin American countries. Conservative media outlets that support Trump exist among the mainstream, such as Fox News. They probably would resist sweeping changes to media laws that could be used against them too.
Second, U.S. defamation laws place a heavy burden of proof on the plaintiff, particularly public figures. Unlike in some Latin American countries, people found guilty of libel in the United States cannot be sent to prison. (Fighting defamation charges still can prove unbearably costly to the defendant and can threaten the media outlet’s survival.)
Third, U.S. presidents have weaker constitutionally granted powers than those granted to many Latin American presidents. Therefore, it is harder for a U.S. president to make unilateral changes curbing First Amendment rights. Trump’s party does control both houses of Congress, so it’s unlikely to block much of his agenda. But as a newcomer, Trump lacks ironclad support among congressional Republicans. And the Democratic Party, even with some fissures, remains stronger and more united than the partisan oppositions in Latin America.
Finally, even if Congress were to pass legislation weakening the media’s legal protections, it would be challenged in court. And so far, the U.S. courts have not capitulated to executive orders they deem unconstitutional.
Our study finds freer media when judiciaries maintain their independence and legislatures check presidents. Whether Trump successfully constricts the news media’s ability to report freely will depend on whether Congress and the courts choose to hold him back.
Marisa Kellam is an associate professor in the School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Elizabeth A. Stein is the Mark Helmke postdoctoral scholar of global media, development and democracy and a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies.