The threats to Freedom of the Press under Donald Trump have led to Reporters Without Borders dropping the rating of the United States to 45th, continuing its downward trend. The United States previously finished No. 43 in 2017 and No. 41 in 2016. Even before Trump, they note restrictions in Press Freedom due to the prosecution of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act which predated his presidency.
From their report on the United States:
The United States’ ranking fell from 43 to 45 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index, continuing its downward trend in the first year of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. In contrast, its northern neighbor Canada gained 4 places due to steps taken to safeguard the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
Donald Trump furthers First Amendment decline
In 2017, the 45th President of the United States helped sink the country to 45th place by labeling the press an “enemy of the American people” in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempts to block White House access to multiple media outlets, routine use of the term “fake news” in retaliation for critical reporting, and calling for media outlets’ broadcasting licenses to be revoked. President Trump has routinely singled out news outlets and individual journalists for their coverage of him, and retweeted several violent memes targeting CNN.
The violent anti-press rhetoric from the White House has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protestsor simply attempting to ask public officials questions. Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job.
Press freedom violations in the country of the First Amendment in fact have become so frequent of late that RSF joined a coalition of more than two dozen press freedom organizations to launch the US Press Freedom Tracker in August, which documented 34 arrests of journalists in 2017, the majority while covering protests (find out more on the tracker).
However, the Trump effect has only served to amplify the disappointing press freedom climate that predated his presidency. Whistleblowers face prosecution under the Espionage Act if they leak information of public interest to the press, while there is still no federal “shield law” guaranteeing reporters’ right to protect their sources. Journalists and their devices continue to be searched at the US border, while some foreign journalists are still denied entry into the US after covering sensitive topics like Colombia’s FARC or Kurdistan.
The US’ decline in press freedom is not simply bad news for journalists working inside the country; the downward trend has drastic consequences at the international level. “Fake news” is now a trademark excuse for media repression, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. Democratic governments from several countries in the Organisation of East Caribbean States (OECS), have adopted Trump’s favorite phrase when criticizing the work of journalists. Given that criminal defamation still remains on the books in many Caribbean countries, the spread of Trump’s anti-media rhetoric could have very serious consequences for the local press.
Norway and Sweden were ranked at the top for press freedom for the second straight year. North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Syria and China were at the bottom. The report also mentioned the impact of strongmen such as Vladimir Putin:
The Index also reflects the growing influence of “strongmen” and rival models. After stifling independent voices at home, Vladimir Putin’s Russia (148th) is extending its propaganda network by means of media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, while Xi Jinping’s China (176th) is exporting its tightly controlled news and information model in Asia. Their relentless suppression of criticism and dissent provides support to other countries near the bottom of the Index such as Vietnam (175th), Turkmenistan (178th) and Azerbaijan (163rd).
I noted last week how Edward Snowden had joined civil liberties organization in condemning restrictions on free communications in Russia. In a recent interview, Ed Schultz argued that Russia Today provides him with more independence than he had at MSNBC, which he says fired him for his support for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.