Journalists in peril around the globe as US cedes leadership role

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For a president to stand at a podium or at the helm of his Twitter feed and repeatedly label the mainstream media as “fake news” may seem relatively harmless. But coming as it does when freedom of the press is under assault worldwide, Donald Trump is deepening the damage both at home and abroad, making the world less safe for journalists. 

Press freedom is under threat worldwide amid an assault on journalism of global proportions. Unprecedented numbers of journalists have been imprisoned simply for doing their jobs. News media are regularly denigrated as “fake news” and labeled enemies of the people. Journalists covering corruption and organized crime are being murdered but their killers remain free.

{mosads}Whereas these trends have been depressingly common in countries lacking rule of law and democratic safeguards, they are set to worsen as the United States, a traditional press-freedom ally, cedes it leadership. 


This year, at least 21 journalists have been killed in relation to their work. While Iraq is the most deadly country for journalists because of the ongoing conflict, Mexico is the country where the most journalists have been singled out for murder in direct reprisal for their reporting.

Among at least four journalists murdered this year in Mexico was Javier Valdez, one of the country’s leading investigative journalists, who devoted his life to pulling back the curtain on corruption and organized crime. Just days before he was dragged out of his car and shot 12 times, a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) delegation to Mexico met with President Enrique Peña Nieto about the inexcusable cycle of impunity in journalists murders.  

Murder is the ultimate form of censorship. In nine out of 10 cases worldwide, the killers of journalists go free, emboldening more would-be murderers. Too often, political entities are implicated, so there is little interest in solving the case. Yet authorities are all too ready to investigate journalists who are reporting on politics, corruption or human rights abuses and gather “evidence” in order to arrest them and stop their reporting. 

Last year, a record 259 journalists were imprisoned for their work, the most CPJ has recorded since the first annual census in the early 1990s. At least 81 jailed journalists — nearly a third of the global total —were in Turkey, a U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic extremism that has used the pretexts of terrorism and national security to not only imprison journalists, but expel foreign reporters, shut down news outlets and destroy their archives and censor social media.

Showing solidarity as a journalist or press-freedom advocate can also lead to arrest. The violence against journalists by Turkish officials even extended to the U.S., when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bodyguards attacked journalists in 2016 outside the Brookings Institution where he was giving a speech.

Press freedom advocates depend on the moral authority of countries that respect the freedom and independence of the media. Traditionally, these governments, led by the U.S., have leveraged bilateral relationships to protect this value. But advocacy has become significantly more difficult under the Trump administration. 

The hostility expressed by Trump toward the news media contributes to a dangerous environment for journalists, in the U.S. and around the world. He has labeled the press the “enemy of the people,” restricted journalistic access and bandied about the “fake news” epithet so often that it has been picked up by governments around the world to justify repression.

Erdoğan lauded Trump’s labeling of CNN as fake news; China has disavowed reporting on human rights as “fake news” and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used the term to dismiss reports of mass executions. Cambodian officials invoked Trump in threatening to expel media outlets from the country.

Not only has President Trump ceded U.S. leadership on press freedom and provided cover to repressive leaders around the world, but he is creating a hostile environment for the press at home. 

While we can’t say whether Trump’s tweeted video of himself punching a CNN stand-in or his pillorying individual journalists has led to a rise in physical attacks, we know thanks to research by Vocativ that this online trolling correlates with broader online harassment of journalists.

We also know that attacks on the press in the U.S. have gone beyond rhetoric thanks to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a website launched this month. According to the tracker, in which CPJ is a partner, there have been at least 19 arrests of journalists and 15 physical assaults this year. Many of these incidents were linked with protests, which CPJ research shows can be a dangerous assignment for journalists.

Just this summer, journalists in Venezuela, Israel and the Maldives have been attacked, arrested or charged with crimes for reporting on protests. 

The global deterioration of press freedom is unlikely to improve unless those who attack journalists are held responsible and those who support free and independent media mount a robust defense. Otherwise, the situation for journalists around the world will become more perilous, and the flow of information less certain.

Courtney Radsch is the advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based organization that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists around the world.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Censorship in Mexico Committee to Protect Journalists Donald Trump Fake News Freedom of the press International Federation of Journalists Journalism Mass media News media

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