Over the past few months, President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed contempt for the mainstream media, claiming its journalists are dishonest and “the enemy of the American people.” Trump’s attitude toward the press may be disconcerting to some. And it should be. But it’s imperative that the press and the public avoid confusing Trump’s rhetoric with the actual decline of a key component of our democracy.
In fact, according to a report released Friday from Freedom House, the U.S. still has one of the freest media industries in the world.
Michael Abramowitz, the president of the independent watchdog group, which advocates freedom and democracy worldwide, said in the report that there’s been no detectable chilling effect on the press. “So far, despite President Trump’s fierce denunciations of unfavorable but factual stories as ‘fake news,’” Abramowitz said, “there is abundant evidence that major news organizations remain undeterred, even innovative, in pursuing serious investigations of the government and of Trump himself.”
But as U.S. journalists continue to shriek that the U.S. press is no longer free, leaders of countries across the globe are increasingly imprisoning, and killing, journalists who criticize them. The countries that Freedom House found to be the most hostile to the press are, to name a few, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Syria. No surprise there. The countries deemed to be the “worst of the worst” with regard to freedom of the press have not had a free press for quite some time (or forever). The report’s most significant finding is that press freedom has declined notably across the globe; the worldwide measure is at its worst in the 13 years since Freedom House began its annual report. Only 13 percent of the world’s population has access to a free press such as that of the U.S.
As of December 2016, for example, 81 journalists are being held in Turkey’s prisons under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule — “the highest number in the world,” the report said. Over in Ethiopia, 16 journalists are also behind bars for reporting that was critical toward their government.
In the Middle East and North Africa, countries increasingly restricted the press. “In 2016,” Freedom House research director Jennifer Dunham wrote in the report, “journalists and media entities in countries such as Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates suffered from the chilling effects of harassment, threats, and attacks, particularly regarding critical coverage of government officials.” In Yemen, at least six journalists were killed; nine were “forcibly disappeared.”
Over in the Asia-Pacific, the Republic of Maldives implemented laws to intimidate journalists. Defamation was criminalized, and journalists can now be forced by the government to reveal sources. Similar government restrictions on the press also appeared in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically South Sudan, where Dunham found that security agents were “deployed to printing sites to halt the publication of certain articles.”
In Brazil, government officials used creative ways to silence opposition from the press. Five investigative journalists who exposed the extravagant salaries of members of the judiciary in Paraná state had nearly 50 lawsuits filed against them. “The lawsuits were apparently coordinated, using similar language,” the report explained, “but were spread out geographically, forcing the journalists to spend considerable resources traveling between the courts.”
Trump has given no indication that he seeks to violate the Constitution, and his track record doesn’t suggest otherwise.
The strangling of the free press worldwide is a trend that can be altered, especially if the U.S. remains exemplary in its commitment to a free press at home. Dunham explained that if Trump continues to criticize the press and goes as far as to implement laws in violation of the U.S. Constitution, “Washington’s ability to apply normative pressure to media freedom violators around the world will suffer.”
But Trump has given no indication that he seeks to violate the Constitution, and his track record doesn’t suggest otherwise. While his highly controversial travel-ban executive order was blocked by the courts and some argued it was unconstitutional, he deferred to the court’s decision. He may have criticized the judges involved, just as he criticized the press, but it is clear that he obeys the checks and balances in our nation’s system of government.
U.S. journalists ought to refrain from acting as if Trump’s rhetoric were equivalent to suppressing the fourth estate in the vein of Turkey’s Erdogan or Ethiopia’s Mulatu Teshome. If U.S. journalists believe that the freedom of the press is dead in the U.S., they ought to try working alongside the journalists in the 138 countries — or 69 percent of the world’s countries — that don’t enjoy the privileges of a free society.
— Austin Yack is a National Review Institute William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.