Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Alexandra Ellerbeck is the senior Americas and U.S. research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Ten days ago, Javier Valdez, one of Mexico’s most courageous investigative journalists, was gunned down outside his newspaper’s office in Culiacán, a center for drug trafficking. On Wednesday, Getachew Shiferaw, editor of a leading news website in Ethiopia, was convicted of inciting state subversion. He faces 10 years in jail.
Whenever a journalist in the United States is insulted, threatened or harassed, there’s a natural tendency to want to avoid overreacting. After all, journalists in this country are not subjected to the level and kinds of threats that reporters working in repressive and violent places face every day.
It’s true that this perspective is important, but the actions of Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who is accused of body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on Wednesday after Jacobs pressed him for his view of the Republican health-care bill, represent an alarming escalation. Gianforte faces a misdemeanor assault charge in the altercation.
The experience of countries that have seen a serious and rapid decline in press freedom — from Mexico to Ethiopia, Russia and Turkey — shows that the process proceeds in stages, with the media first being delegitimized and undermined. The United States has reached a juncture in which critical questions must be asked: How much do we as a society value freedom of the press? How energetically are we willing to fight for it?
Based on the audiotape recording of the incident made by Jacobs, it appears that Gianforte acted impulsively and out of anger. More chilling was the response by his campaign staff, which put out a statement echoing the kind of anti-media rhetoric favored by President Trump. In their telling, Jacobs was an aggressive, “liberal” reporter — as if that justified a physical attack. This incident follows disturbing reports that Trump asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information.
It is clear that the threat to journalists in the United States has escalated to a stage beyond angry rhetoric. That’s troubling enough for America, but what’s at stake is not just the rights of journalists in this country but also press freedom as a global value. When Trump calls the media the “enemy of the American people,” he provides fodder for dictators around the world to justify their own press abuses. The Cambodian government cited Trump in February when it threatened to shutter foreign media outlets. The Russian and Syrian governments and Chinese state media have used Trump’s “fake news” epithet in criticizing the press.
But the Trump administration seems to have little concern for this global impact. Already, the president has met with the leading jailers of journalists — Chinese President Xi Jinping, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — whose countries together accounted for 56 percent of all journalists imprisoned worldwide late last year. Trump has declined to publicly call on these countries to improve conditions for their media.
This is not to say that Trump or anyone in his administration bears responsibility for Gianforte’s confrontation with Jacobs; Gianforte alone must grapple with any legal consequences of his actions. But as the president of the United States, Trump is responsible for upholding and defending our political values and the constitutional principles at the heart of our democracy. Our president owes it not only to the people of this country, but also to all those around the world who are fighting for a free press, to condemn the most recent attack. Let us hope he can find his voice.