BERLIN — Journalists are supposed to be observers of and not stakeholders in the events they cover, no matter if they’re working in a small town in Eastern Europe or in the White House. But as journalists around the world themselves have increasingly become targets, many of them have wondered at what point it is justified to put down the pen and speak up — and they have come to very different conclusions.
In Germany, a group of regional reporters decided that this point had come in May, when the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party announced during a news conference that a reporter with the top-selling Bild tabloid would not be allowed to ask questions during the event. The reporter excluded from the press briefing, Michael Sauerbier, had asked critical questions during a previous press event about a senior AfD official’s alleged ties to a right-wing extremist group.
It wasn’t the first time that reporters had been excluded by the AfD, but with attacks mounting and the rhetoric sharpening, all journalists in the room immediately agreed on what to do. They left the room; the news conference was canceled.
If any of those present at the time were watching the testy exchange between President Trump and CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta on Wednesday, they might have had some flashbacks to that day in May.
During Wednesday’s post-midterms news conference, Acosta asked whether Trump had “demonized immigrants” by calling a caravan of Central American migrants “an invasion.” When a White House intern attempted to take back the microphone, Acosta resisted by raising his arm.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he told the woman.
Trump’s response was less subtle. “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN. You’re a very rude person,” Trump told Acosta. Trump had long pondered the possibility of taking away credentials from journalists. “Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?” he asked on Twitter this May.
And on Wednesday, the White House appeared to follow through with those threats for the first time, when it suspended Acosta’s press credentials in an unprecedented move.
In other nations where far-right parties are openly threatening democratic principles or where journalists have to fear for their lives, Acosta was widely celebrated on Thursday morning. Meanwhile, in India, his combative questioning of the president earned him fans on social media, where some praised his willingness to take on the commander in chief.
One user created a video clip contrasting Acosta’s questions with footage from an event in 2015, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a holiday event for journalists — and they mobbed him to take selfies. Modi has not held a news conference where journalists could freely ask questions during his entire time in office.
Foreign journalists were not alone in their support for Acosta. During the testy Wednesday news conference, the reporter Trump called on next immediately rushed to his colleague’s defense. But should U.S. correspondents go down the path of their foreign colleagues and boycott briefings?
The bar for such action has been relatively high abroad. In one case, foreign journalists walked out of an Israeli news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, last year after guards ordered a strip search of a European Press Agency photographer. The incident was later described as “needless and humiliating” by the country’s Foreign Press Association, and coverage of it embarrassed the Israeli government.
In the case of the German AfD incident, the walkout appears to have had impact, too. Senior party officials recently held a roundtable discussion with leading German editors, with the expressed aim to encourage more moderate dialogue, even though the “fake news” slogans have not faded from the streets.
The AfD and Trump are, of course, hardly comparable. Trump has at times engaged with the media and at other times lashed out at them. He has threatened to sue outlets but has not followed through, so far. The AfD, meanwhile, is an opposition party with limited influence.
When former U.S. press secretary Sean Spicer excluded several news organizations from an off-camera press briefing last February but invited conservative publications to join, only a few media outlets decided to boycott the event. The reasons for refraining to boycott the briefing were diverse: Some argued that continuing to cover the administration was more important than setting an example. Other, more polarized news outlets appeared pleased to be favored.
In contrast, Germany has a more moderate media landscape, in which far-left or right-wing publications and networks have so far gained little traction. German journalists often issue statements through joint umbrella associations when they fear violations of press freedom, regardless of their papers’ editorial stances.
In response to the May incident, one such association issued a clear directive to its members: “We ask all our members only to attend AfD events if all attending journalists have the right to ask questions.”
Joanna Slater in New Delhi contributed to this report. Parts of this post were first published on May 10, 2018.
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