On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, held a press conference at his headquarters in Geneva, intending to focus on systematic violations of human rights taking place in Venezuela. This is what the lead UN official for human rights does – calls out governments for serious violations of fundamental rights, conducts high-level fact finding, and encourages countries to meet their international obligations. But he took a detour from one crisis to address another, laying into President Trump’s hostility toward the media and warning that he came close to inciting violence against reporters.
The High Commissioner, who has criticized governments from Russia to China to Turkey, Egypt and many others, concluded his remarks with what seemed like an off-the-cuff riff. “I almost feel that the President is driving the bus of humanity and we’re careening down a mountain path,” Reuters quotes him as saying. “And in taking these measures, at least from a human rights perspective, it seems to be reckless driving.”
The recklessness of Trump’s remarks is undeniable – perhaps, to borrow from the law, “wanton disregard” for the safety of journalists, even if not textbook incitement. This is particularly true in the context of his rallies, which for two years now have involved verbal assaults on the practice and function of a free press and even specific journalists. The bullying was a feature of a candidacy that became, all too predictably, a central aspect of this presidency.
The President’s attacks may be reckless – who knows whether someone in his audience will take the President’s word as license to take action against enemies of the American people? – but they are not without purpose. They have concrete aims: to intimidate reporters into certain kinds of coverage, or clarify for his favored outlets what coverage he desires, or plant the seeds of doubt about news stories (such as the Russia investigation led by Robert Mueller). They may also be a kind of venting unique to Donald Trump. In some instances, it may be all these things at once. In addition to the press itself, the audience for these remarks is a segment of the population that already lacks faith in the American media, which serves these purposes well.
However, when we tie together the jeremiads and rhetoric with what the Trump administration is doing in other governing spaces, the practice of attacking the press becomes clearer as policy than solely reckless rant.
First, the attack on the press is not merely rhetorical; it is increasingly reflected in policy. The best example comes from a press conference in August, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a stunning display of hostility toward the work of the media. Without providing any concrete example of harm, he pronounced upon “the staggering number of leaks undermining the ability of our government to protect this country.” Of course governments have a responsibility to protect certain kinds of information, for instance where disclosure would damage national security or public order. But the context of Session’s statement told a different story: the administration, especially the President himself, has been embarrassed by disclosures from inside the White House, among other places. Indeed, the President himself lit into Sessions only the week before, giving the AG good reason to get back into the boss’ good graces.
On its face, Sessions’ statement seems concerned not directly with reporters but with sources, but of course that is a distinction that breaks down in the real world of journalism. Journalists rely on sources, particularly in times of crises, and in turn those sources rely upon journalists and a framework of law (think: whistleblowers) to protect their confidentiality. If anything, Sessions’ statement intended not merely to deter sources from speaking, or whistleblowers from making legitimate disclosures, but from a higher altitude view, to deprive the public of stories of the highest public interest concerning the conduct of this administration. And if there were any doubt about the US Attorney General’s view of the media, he punctuated his remarks by saying of the media, “They cannot place lives at risk with impunity.” Make no mistake: That’s an allusion to prosecution and punishment.
Second, Trump’s incendiary statements work in tandem with a pattern of lying and disinformation, both aiming to limit the accessibility of truthful information. I don’t need to review this well-trod space. But it’s worth highlighting that regular, routinized lying aims to interfere with the public’s right to know the truth about matters of public interest. In March, my colleagues who monitor press freedom in Europe, the Americas and Africa and I issued a Joint Declaration on this subject, noting how “fake news,” disinformation and propaganda undermine public trust in a diverse media – contrary to the state’s general obligation to promote access to information. In that respect, what is meant by “fake news” is not Trump’s attempt to coopt the term and apply it to reliable, independent news reports. Fake news is intentionally fraudulent information given to the public, of which Trump himself is a regular purveyor. When transmitted through government officials this form of disinformation may also be called propaganda.
Third, the administration operates as if it has something to hide. Among other things, President Trump himself failed to release his tax returns, developed a false story line about his son’s visit with Russian visitors at Trump Tower in 2016, has limited video cameras in press conferences, mused with Jim Comey about arresting reporters, and adopted a policy by which the White House keeps its visitor logs secret. His cabinet follows suit. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson keeps an extraordinary distance from the press, and his tenure has earned the title of “lowest-profile State Department in 45 years.” The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, pursues a radical vision of deregulating polluters largely in secret, avoiding the kinds of public transparency and oversight that have been standard EPA policies for decades.
These are the most obvious sorts of attacks on freedom of the press and erosions of the public’s right to information. There are also long-term threats that would require more space than I have here. For instance, the FCC’s proposal to undo network neutrality rules – those rules that implement a policy disfavoring content-discrimination by digital network operators – threatens the long-term viability of independent media, and doing most damage to reporters and outlets that lack the audience and resources of existing media powerhouses. Separately, Attorney General Sessions has called Julian Assange’s arrest a priority, which, while many people on the right and left would love to see this happen, would have deeply problematic implications for all reporters who cover national security and intelligence in the United States.
The High Commissioner has done us a favor by stating his concerns, not from the narrow doctrinal place of a Constitutional lawyer or even human rights litigator, but from the perspective of someone concerned about the environment in which human rights and the rule of law flourish. (Human rights law, let’s also note, is part of American law, inasmuch as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – whose Article 19 protects freedom of expression – is a ratified treaty of the United States.) President Trump’s statements are indeed reckless, but they are consistent with a troubling trend of hostility toward open and honest government. And sadly, from the global perspective, it’s part of a general trend of hostility to freedom of expression, online and off.
Journalists enjoy the freedom of the press not just because we think it’s cool for reporters to report. It’s not about journalists’ professional development or self-expression. It’s about the public’s right to information. Trump could just as well replace an attack on one outlet with another. The point is that these policies have the purpose of undermining the public’s rights to know what the government is doing in its name, with its tax dollars. So don’t just focus on reporters and news outlets hurt by the President’s assault on the media. The primary victim of Trump’s campaign against independent news is the American public. He may see it as valuable politically, but it’s wrong, and it risks doing long-term damage to a core value – a core human rights value, and a core American one.
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