As the newly-sworn in United States President Joseph Biden begins his tenure, he has a lot of salvaging to do from the wreckage left by his predecessor.
One of the more disturbing messages arising out of the attack by violent pro-Trump insurrectionists at the US Capitol on January 6 involved frightening threats to a free press. Scrawled on a door at the building were the words: “Murder the Media.”
That pithy, vile phrase represented the raw culmination of five years of rhetorical attacks by Donald Trump and his political allies against critical media coverage.
From the early days of his administration, when a White House aide pronounced that there is such a thing as “alternative facts”, to the incessant lies (30,000 at last count, according to The Washington Post) by the president, to the abuse of social media platforms to spread outrageous misinformation, the press has been under tremendous pressure to simply report reality.
As The Washington Post editor Marty Baron said in 2017: “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.”
Doing the job of reporting has never been harder, or more dangerous, in the US and around the world.
Attacks on journalists
A major theme running through the Committee to Protect Journalists’ recently issued annual report is the blatant impunity for those who target journalists, arresting, jailing and prosecuting them for doing their job.
The report details how governments around the world have used spurious justifications to imprison reporters for telling the truth, on pretexts ranging from crackdowns on elusive ”fake news” to inciting civil unrest by reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CPJ’s annual census of reporters imprisoned lists a record high 274 behind bars in 2020. As in years past, the main offenders were China, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. No other nation that purports to respect a free press, and no international body, truly holds them to account.
That record number does not account for the hundreds of journalists arrested and released throughout the year – and not just in the countries named above. In Pakistan, for example, it wasn’t until November 2020 that the government released on bail the nation’s largest media tycoon, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman. He had been incarcerated since March, an eight-month imprisonment for bogus land transaction charges dating to 1986. His media companies have been critical of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military.
In fact, the CPJ report is a damning indictment of how “authoritarians again took cover in anti-press rhetoric from the United States”.
Over the past five years, there has been a noticeable absence of leadership in promoting democratic values, including a free press and freedom to dissent. This deficiency is particularly evident in the United States, where Trump has constantly attacked the press and cozied up to dictators abroad.
Authoritarians around the world, from the Philippines to Turkey, leveraged Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric to justify their actions. This year, 34 journalists were jailed for “false news,” compared with 31 last year. On 12 December, Iran hanged journalist Ruhollah Zam, accused of fomenting political unrest.
In context, attacks on the press in the United States may not seem as horrific. However, 120 journalists were arrested or criminally charged in 2020 (compared to nine in 2019) and about 300 were assaulted, the majority by law enforcement, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Sixteen face criminal charges.
Most of these attacks occurred during the anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis this summer, when police arrested or attacked journalists who had identified themselves as press.
Reporters covering protests have the same rights as other citizens – that is, they can engage in lawful behaviour that includes photographing and interviewing people in public settings. The First Amendment provides some 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 to account for transgressing these lines.
President Trump’s hostility toward the press has catalysed direct attacks on journalists. Sometimes, the attackers are held to account – like the man, Robert Chaim, who made multiple calls to The Boston Globe newsroom with death threats, echoing Trump’s criticism of the Globe as an “enemy of the people”. A police search of Chaim’s house in California found a cache of 19 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. In 2018, a court sentenced him to four months in prison.
As the CPJ report notes, populist leaders around the world are targeting the news media with such accusations against journalists. A prominent example is President Roderigo Duterte in the Philippines, not mentioned in the report, under whose watch the journalist Maria Ressa faces various lawsuits including fraud and cyber libel.
“The reason why this matters is that where the Philippines goes, America follows. Take the weaponization of social media – we were the test case before America,” Ressa has said. “Online violence leads to real world violence.”
Among the many items on president-elect Biden’s to-do list, restoring respect for a free press would send an important signal and ricochet around the world.
Here are some steps his administration needs to take urgently:
- Hold Saudi Arabia to account for its role in the killing of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi
- Take the lead with international institutions, including the special rapporteurs for freedom of expression of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
- Hold police officials accountable – those who used tear gas, rubber bullets and tasers against journalists, and detained, arrested, and targeted reporters who were trying to do their job
- Drop charges against whistleblowers who provide crucial information to reporters about administrative wrongdoing.
The US government has traditionally promoted and funded independent media around the world, defending journalists and news outlets under threat, besides promoting and defending the internet as a shared global system of information, as the CPJ report notes.
Restoring this historic role and the nation’s commitment to freedom of the press around the world and here at home would be one of the Biden presidency’s most important accomplishments.
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.