Trump’s rhetoric gives dictators ‘green light’ to attack journalists, says former NYT reporter

President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE is giving some dictators the “green light” to go after journalists, according to a former New York Times reporter who was threatened with jail time by two successive U.S. presidential administrations.

“Donald Trump saying he wants to change American libel laws, I think, has helped give some of these dictators around the world the sense that they have a green light to go after reporters in this way,” James Risen, director of the Press Freedom Defense Fund, told Hill.TV’s Krystal Ball and Mattie Dupplier.

Risen was referring to the recent arrest of Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, a frequent critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.

She was arrested Wednesday by the country's government over years-old libel charges and has since been released on bail.

Her charge is related to a 2012 article and the “cyber libel law,” which didn't take effect until 2014. During an interview with CNN on Thursday, Ressa called the charges “bogus” and an example of how the law is being “weaponized” against Duterte’s critics.

Risen, who was threatened with jail time by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations for his reporting, emphasized that this is not the first time Ressa has been attacked by Duterte.

He also called the charges against her a “total abuse” of the country’s legal system.

“The laws in each case really don’t matter,” Risen told Hill.TV. “He’s just using the courts for his own personal vengeance against Maria because she has been highly critical of the killings by the Duterte regime and their drug war.”

The press advocate said that his organization, which represents journalists like Messa, has partnered with the Committee to Protect Journalists to help cover her legal expenses.

He added that he finds the latest charges against Ressa “particularly dangerous” because the "government charged her criminally with libel and the libel is being critical of a government official."

More than 250 journalists worldwide are imprisoned because of their work, according to an annual report from the Committee to Protect Journalists published in December.

Risen said one of the most chilling conversations he’s had with Ressa was about President Trump and his rhetoric toward the press. Trump has repeatedly referred to some outlets as "fake news" and called journalists the "enemy of the American people."

“She said we are six months away from where you are," Risen told Hill.TV. "And maybe it’s more than six months, but it was a frightening conversation to me because I think she’s right.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

—Tess Bonn