When newly-appointed President of the United States Joseph Biden began his term, he had a lot of work to do from the ruins left by his predecessors.
One of the more disturbing messages that emerged from the attack by violent pro-Trump rebels on the US Capitol on January 6 involved a terrifying threat to a free press. On the door of the building were the words: “Killing Media.”
The cruel and pithy line represents the crude culmination of five years of rhetorical attacks by Donald Trump and his political allies on critical media coverage.
From the start of his reign, when a White House assistant announced that there was such a thing as “alternative facts”, to the incessant lying (30,000 at last count, based on The Washington Post) by the president, to the abuse of social media platforms to spread misinformation, the press is under tremendous pressure to simply report the truth.
As The Washington Post editor Marty Baron said in 2017: “We are not at war with the government, we are working. We’re doing our job. “
Performing a reporting task has never been more difficult, or more dangerous, in the US and around the world.
Attacks on journalists
The main theme that runs through the The annual report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists recently is blatant impunity for those who target journalists, arrest, imprison and prosecute them for doing their job.
The report details how governments around the world have used false justifications to jail journalists for telling the truth, under pretexts ranging from crackdowns on elusive “fake news” to inciting civil unrest by reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic.
CPJ the annual census of incarcerated journalists recorded a record high of 274 behind bars in 2020. As in previous years, the main offenders were China, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. No other country claims to respect a free press, and no international body can actually hold them to account.
Representational image. Illustration: Wikimedia Commons
That record number does not include the hundreds of journalists arrested and released throughout the year – and not just in the countries mentioned above. In Pakistan, for example, the new government was in November 2020 released on bail the nation’s biggest media tycoon, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman. She ever jailed since March, eight months in prison on charges of bogus land deals since 1986. Its media company has criticized Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military.
In fact, the CPJ report is a damning indictment of how “the authorities are again taking cover in anti-press rhetoric from the United States”.
Over the past five years, there has been a lack of leadership in promoting democratic values, including freedom of the press and freedom of opinion. These deficiencies are particularly evident in the United States, where Trump has continually attacked the press and mingled with dictators abroad.
Authorities around the world, from the Philippines to Turkey, are taking advantage of Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric to justify their actions. This year, 34 journalists were jailed for “fake news”, compared to 31 years ago. On December 12, Iran hanged journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was accused of fomenting political unrest.
In context, the attacks on the press in the United States may not seem dire. However, 120 journalists were arrested or criminally charged in 2020 (compared to nine in 2019) and around 300 people were persecuted, the majority by law enforcement, according to US Press Freedom Tracker. Sixteen face criminal charges.
Most of these attacks occurred during anti-racism protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis this summer, when police arrested or attacked journalists who identified themselves as the press.
Journalists who cover protests have the same rights as citizens of other countries – that is, they can engage in legitimate behavior that includes taking photos and interviewing people in public. The First Amendment provides additional legal protection, and many police departments have written policies on how police should treat journalists.
There are few, if any, instances of officers being held accountable for crossing this line.
President Trump’s hostility to the press has sparked direct attacks on journalists. Sometimes, the attackers were held to account – as was the man, Robert Chaim, who made several calls The Boston Globe newsroom with death threats, echoing Trump’s criticism of the Globe as an “enemy of the people”. A police search at Chaim’s home in California found 19 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. In 2018, the court sentenced him to four months in prison.
As the CPJ report notes, populist leaders around the world target the news media with such accusations against journalists. A prominent example is the President Roderigo Duterte in the Philippines, not mentioned in the report, under the supervision of journalists Maria Ressa facing various lawsuits including cyber fraud and slander.
“The reason why this is important is where the Philippines goes, America follows. Take the arsenal of social media – we are the pre-American case, ” Ressa said. “Online violence leads to real world violence.”
Among many items on president-elect Biden’s to-do list, restoring respect for a free press will send an important, ricocheting signal around the world.
Here are some steps the government needs to take urgently:
- Holding Saudi Arabia accountable for its role in the killings The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi
- Leads with international institutions, including the special rapporteur on freedom of expression of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
- Hold police officers to account – those who use tear gas, rubber bullets and electric shocks against journalists, and detain, arrest, and target journalists trying to do their job
- Dismiss the accusation against the reporter who provides important information to the reporter regarding administrative violations.
The US government has traditionally promoted and financed independent media around the world, defending journalists and news outlets under threat, in addition to promoting and defending the internet as a shared global information system, as noted by the CPJ report.
Restoring this historic role and the nation’s commitment to press freedom around the world and here at home will be one of the most important achievements of the Biden presidency.
James McManus is a lawyer and journalist in Boston. Beena Sarwar is a journalist and political analyst from Pakistan where she has lived and worked through two military dictatorships. Both teach law and journalism at Emerson College, Boston.