An open letter to President Trump,
Sir, you’re hurting this country and empowering dictators. Like every good leader, it’s time to take your grievances behind closed doors.
Countries like Venezuela, Russia and China are using Washington’s aggressive stance on journalists to justify their own erosion of the free press
George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’ gave cover to despots around the world – from China, to Turkey and Russia – for violent crackdowns of minority groups seeking greater freedoms. Once these groups were re-cast as ‘terrorists’, it was hard for the West to criticize the states that used heavy-handed tactics against them. Now, Washington DC has invented another ‘war’ that has regimes across the world delighted: the war on the media.
In mid-February, Venezuela booted CNN En Espanol from the airwaves, claiming, in a fancier version of Trump’s language, that CNN’s reports “defame and distort the truth.” After the White House in late February barred several news outlets, including the New York Times and Politico, from attending a routine briefing, a government spokesman in Cambodia cited that as an inspiration – and threatened to expel news outlets that don’t follow Phnom Penh’s orders.
Also in late February, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website launched a page featuring foreign media reporting that it claims contains false information. The Ministry decorated each article – which come from outlets including The New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and the tiny Santa Monica Observer, among others – with the word ‘Fake.’ (“Stop spreading lies and false news,” a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson told a CNN reporter in early March.)
These attacks serve two main purposes. They intimidate the media, and strive to ingratiate the country’s government with Trump.
“To get on the United States’ good side, leaders would use the phrase ‘war on terror,’” said Keith Richburg, a longtime Washington Post foreign correspondent who’s now the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University. “Now we may see every dictator and autocrat” using the same anti-media language Trump uses, to harass foreign and domestic journalists. “Great opportunity for them to kick out American reporters, and deny them visas,” Richburg said.
In the weeks following 9/11, Bush made sure to emphasize his respect for Islam, and for Muslims. “Islam is peace,” he said in a speech six days after the attacks. “These terrorists don’t represent peace.” Today, despite potentially huge budget cuts, the State Department will almost certainly continue to support American journalists abroad, and to advocate for press freedom globally. But will Trump stand up for the journalists, operating internationally, who come from outlets critical of him and his White House? That seems unlikely.
While Trump has never specifically discussed whether he would protect journalists abroad, he has long been unsympathetic to Americans caught in international plights.
In 1990, when asked about Americans kidnapped in Lebanon during that country’s civil war, Trump told Playboy he blamed the Americans for being in Lebanon – and not the militant group Hezbollah for capturing them. “You feel very bad for him,” Trump added, “but you cannot base foreign policy on his capture.”
In December 2015, MSNBC asked Trump how he felt about Russian President Vladmir Putin’s killing of journalists who disagreed with him. In a stunningly wrongheaded display of moral equivalency, Trump replied, “Well I think our country does plenty of killing, too.”
During his campaign, Trump infamously said of John McCain, a decorated Vietnam vet who was tortured in a Vietnamese prison, “I like people who weren’t captured.” Trump’s remarks “show a complete lack of empathy,” David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, told me.
Besides America, Trump’s war on the media will likely have the greatest repercussions in China, a country where foreign media plays an essential role in transmitting accurate information.
In their English language commentary, Chinese state media outlets have started adapting Trump’s phrases to denigrate Western journalists’ criticism of China’s human rights abuses.
“Foreign media reports that police tortured a detained lawyer is FAKE NEWS, fabricated to tarnish China’s image,” the newspaper The People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, tweeted on March 3.
That lawyer, Xie Yang, had earlier said that his interrogators punched him, kicked him, threatened to turn him into an “invalid,” and deprived him of sleep. “I wanted to end their interrogation of me as quickly as I could,” Xie told his lawyers, “even if it meant death.” (The People’s Daily tweet features a macabre photo of man with a shaved head, presumably Xie, smiling behind bars.)
Chinese officials have long been suspicious of American reporters, but fearful of American reprisal. Trump’s war on the media – and America’s shrinking global standing caused by some of Trump’s actions and policies – emboldens Beijing.
“I now feel more vulnerable,” a longtime American foreign correspondent in Beijing, who asked to speak anonymously, told me, “because the moral gravitas of the Obama administration, and its discourse on press rights, has been wiped out.”
In October 2001, Bush told then Secretary Jiang that “the United States and China can accomplish a lot when we work together to fight terrorism.” Trump and China’s Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping may meet for the first time in April. One hopes they don’t say the same thing about the media.