Labeling journalists “the enemy of the people.” Oh, America! Where are you heading?

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!   1:48 PM – 17 Feb 2017”

-President Trump

 “When American leaders stand up for a free press, they embolden courageous journalists who put their lives and liberty on the line to report the news. And when American leaders fall short, they embolden the autocrats who seek to repress those journalists.”

– The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

     by Alan Simons

Last month, A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher of The New York Times, received a request from the White House to meet with President Trump. According to the Publisher “This was not unusual; there has been a long tradition of New York Times publishers holding such meetings with presidents and other public figures who have concerns about coverage.”

Not long after his meeting with the president, A.G. Sulzberger felt obliged to issue a statement. He said:

“My main purpose for accepting the meeting was to raise concerns about the president’s deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric.

I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.

I told him that although the phrase “fake news” is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists “the enemy of the people.” I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.

I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.

Throughout the conversation I emphasized that if President Trump, like previous presidents, was upset with coverage of his administration he was of course free to tell the world. I made clear repeatedly that I was not asking for him to soften his attacks on The Times if he felt our coverage was unfair. Instead, I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism, which I believe are dangerous and harmful to our country.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. On August 15, 2018, CPJ issued the following statement on US press freedom:

In recent weeks CPJ has noticed an uptick in interest from editorial boards of U.S. publications on issues related to press freedom in the United States. In light of this, the following data and reporting may be helpful.

CPJ systematically tracks the killing and imprisonment of journalists around the world, and reports on threats and attacks against them. We are also one of the managing partners of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a joint initiative of 30 organizations dedicated to defending press freedom.

According to CPJ research, in 2018:

Four journalists and one media worker have been murdered (at the Capital Gazette)

Another journalist, Zack Stoner, was killed in Chicago, but CPJ is still investigating whether the motive is related to his journalism.

This is the deadliest year for journalists in the United States since CPJ began keeping records in 1992. At this point in 2018, the United States is the third deadliest country globally after Afghanistan and Syria.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:

In 2018, at least 24 journalists were physically attacked (ranging from being shoved or having equipment damaged, to more serious physical assaults). In 2017, at least 45 journalists were physically attacked.

In 2018, at least three journalists have been arrested in the U.S. in the course of their work. In 2017, at least 34 journalists were arrested.

Since the beginning of 2017, the Department of Justice has issued indictments in at least four leak prosecutions. In at least one case, a journalist’s records were subpoenaed.

An international delegation of global press freedom groups led by CPJ in January found that journalists face a range of threats including physical and verbal harassment, and that press freedom in Missouri and surrounding states has worsened in recent years.

Covering white nationalism and the far right is a dangerous beat in the United States. CPJ has documented threats, both online and off, to reporters who cover these movements.

Protests are among the most dangerous assignments for journalists:

CPJ research shows that journalists of colour face a unique set of threats when covering protests.

Since the beginning of 2017, the S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented at least 31 journalists arrested at protests, while 36 have faced some form of physical attack or interference at protests.

CPJ has also documented how the police crowd-control tactic known askettlingcan sweep up journalists and result in their arrest.

The White House’s charged rhetoric on “fake news” not only undermines the work of the media in the U.S., it emboldens autocratic leaders around the world. Authorities in countries including China, Cambodia, Egypt, Philippines, Syria, and Poland have adopted President Trump’sfake news” epithet to justify censorship.

In the past year, Canada has also seen an increase of attacks against its journalists. On August 24, 2017, Global News reported,Black Bloc warning urges more violence against Canadian journalists. An anti-fascist group whose members assaulted two Global News journalists at a demonstration in Quebec last weekend defended their actions Thursday and threatened more violence against journalists covering future protests in order to, according to the post, “make demonstrations safer” for the group. In an anonymous statement posted online titled “No face, no case: in defence of smashing corporate media cameras” the group said it wanted to “offer an explanation” for why a Global News camera was smashed and reporter Mike Armstrong was assaulted and pushed down a staircase.” And this past week, A Canadian journalist was physically attacked at an anti-hate rally in Toronto.

To quote the American author, Naomi Wolf: “Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the ’30s, East Germany in the ’50s, Czechoslovakia in the ’60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the ’70s, China in the ’80s and ’90s – all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and journalists.” 

Today, the Editorial Board of The Boston Globe said this about Trump: “A central pillar of President Trump’s politics is a sustained assault on the free press. Journalists are not classified as fellow Americans, but rather “The enemy of the people.” This relentless assault on the free press has dangerous consequences.

They added:

“Replacing a free media with a state-run media has always been a first order of business for any corrupt regime taking over a country. Today in the United States we have a president who has created a mantra that members of the media who do not blatantly support the policies of the current U.S. administration are the “enemy of the people.” This is one of the many lies that have been thrown out by this president much like an old-time charlatan threw out “magic” dust or water on a hopeful crowd.

“The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom,” wrote John Adams.

For more than two centuries, this foundational American principle has protected journalists at home and served as a model for free nations abroad. Today it is under serious threat. And it sends an alarming signal to despots, from Ankara to Moscow, Beijing to Baghdad, that journalists can be treated as a domestic enemy.”

Which brings me to President Trump, with his pernicious thirst for personally mocking journalists and the media they work for. How much have his hate-mongering words been instrumental in giving the public approval to abuse journalists?

Oh, America! Where are you heading?

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