What a difference a day makes. On July 19, 2016, Donald J. Trump became the Republican nominee for a presidency uniformly predicted to never be his. Before that day, he was a circus freak, born to be stared at and ridiculed as an improbable sideshow. Up to then, he was ratings gold for the cable news networks, a boorish orange Quasimodo who seemed to grow stronger and more grotesque and fascinating to the American public with each well-watched news report. Trump ought to thank Jeff Zucker for his nomination.
Rather quickly, there developed an unprecedentedly ugly dynamic. A media mostly biased in favor of Secretary Clinton (sometimes quite openly) was bullied, blasted and browbeaten by this pompous candidate who would go on – against their wishes and forecasts – to win the presidency. (Paging Winston Smith: CNN scrubbed the video of this forecast after the election).
White House reporters would go on to complain publicly about seating at press conferences, about alternative news platforms being given the same access they believed was the exclusive birthright of legacy media, and most of all, about being lied to by the president and his hapless communications staff. In turn, the president unleashed his 50-caliber Twitter gun on the complaining reporters, and in some cases singled them out for ridicule and even verbal abuse. Thus, we are told, began “the war on the press.”
While we were mesmerized by the president and CNN’s Jim Acosta trading petulant barbs, Carlos Domínguez Rodríguez, a 77-year-old political reporter in Mexico was stabbed in his car by masked men 21 times as his family watched in horror. For almost 40 years he had been critical of local authorities, especially targeting the powerful mayors who run municipalities as if they were fiefdoms, and who often have police or paramilitary supporters carry out their murderous orders. Rodríguez was only one of more than 60 reporters who have been murdered in the last year and a half, according to Reporters Without Borders, a journalism advocacy non-profit. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom from reprisals, reported that in 2017 at least 262 reporters were held in jails, almost all of them for writing stories critical of the ruling governments and officials.
The real war on the press
To be sure, the president labelling any news he doesn’t like as “fake news” has changed the media dynamic. As I’ve written elsewhere, the president is at best misusing the phrase, and at worst, cynically pouring salt on largely self-inflicted wounds: the endless stream of wildly and irresponsibly inaccurate stories produced by legacy media. Yes, journalists have been jeered at and heckled at President Trump’s rallies. (News Flash: Idiots walk among us). While the president has cynically used the public’s well-deserved distrust of the media to his own ends, for all of his bile and bluster, nowhere in the National Center for Health Statistics could I find a single instance of Death by Tweet.
The Committee to Protect Journalists maintains a remarkable searchable database of cold statistics. Behind each statistic lies a human life lost and a truth-seeking voice forever silenced. Radio reporter Abdullahi Osman Moalim was murdered by Islamic fundamentalists who suicide bombed a press conference he was covering in Somalia. The body of José Cabezas, a photojournalist in Argentina, was found handcuffed and charred inside a burned rental car at a beach resort where Cabezas was working on a story. He was one of the first photojournalists to photograph a well-known and reclusive tycoon described as a head of the Argentine mafia. Christopher Lozada, a radio broadcaster in the southern Philippines and his girlfriend were driving home when ambushed by unidentified gunmen in a van. Lozada was declared dead at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds to his chest. There are literally hundreds of stories like these. In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 316 journalists have been murdered in the last 10 years, most of whom suffered the ultimate reprisal for political reporting. (That does not even address the 173 journalists killed in the line of duty in combat situations).
More than murder
Here in the United States, pious comparisons of Trump’s bellicosity have drawn hysterical comparisons to Stalin. The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) noted that a reporter was punched by a civilian in the scuffles that ensued after the deadly car attack in Charlottesville last August, and CJR squarely laid the blame on Trump in a pitch-perfect slippery-slope phrase: “With his near-daily denouncements of the press, the president has helped normalize abuses against journalists by ordinary people.”
At the same time by contrast, on the other side of the world journalist Yusuf Ruzimuradov was finally freed this month after rotting in an Uzbekistan prison for 19 years, much of it in solitary confinement. His “crime” was writing for an opposition newspaper that had been banned by the ruling party. Although Ruzimuradov’s prison time is the longest served by a journalist, his story is stunningly common and markedly global. A December 2017 Committee to Protect Journalists report shows that the 262 reporters imprisoned for their work is a historical high.
Imprisoning reporters for the content of their reportage is the long-standing hallmark of tyrants and dictators. Five journalists were imprisoned in Iran last year, eight in Uganda and 15 in Eritrea. Geopolitically speaking, that isn’t terribly shocking: those nations are democratically underdeveloped and lack a legacy of the rule of law. The real A-Team in jailing journalists are major world powers and trading partners with the United States. Turkey leads the way, holding 73 reporters hostage, followed by China’s 41 jailed journalists and Egypt’s 20 reporters. Often, reporters are swept up in the middle of the night, held without charge, or held on vague criminal laws such as “presenting a threat to public order.”
New York Times reporter Michael Forsythe has spent more than a decade covering China’s government and economy from Beijing and elsewhere and has seen first-hand the way China uses detention as a weapon against the press. “There isn’t a journalist there who doesn’t know at least one Chinese reporter or media staffer who has been roughed up by police or held in jail without charges” says Forsythe. Forsythe was part of a Bloomberg News team who won the 2013 George Polk Award for revealing the Midas-like fortunes made by politically connected Chinese. “It’s not as bad when you are a westerner,” Forsythe noted, “because the Chinese are wary of creating an international incident. But when a reporter or researcher is a Chinese national, they are particularly vulnerable to being whisked away by police in the middle of the night. These guys are the real eyes and ears for us, and they do their work at great risk.” That’s not to say westerners are immune from danger. Forsythe himself had been the recipient of death threats after the publication of the 2013 exposé. (Disclosure: I was responsible for managing the pre-publication legal risks and government push-back after that exposé was published).
Hard facts and real history are why it is difficult to take too seriously the deranged cries that President Trump is the next Stalin. Attribute all the evil you want to him: none of the countries above (nor did the USSR) maintain an independent judiciary safeguarding constitutionally ordained protections for free speech. They have little or no regard for due process in jailing persons accused of allegedly criminal conduct. Moreover, the United States does not criminalize critique of the government or its leaders. Put more simply, Rachel Maddow can smirk all she likes here in the safety of the US, but she would last for about 10 minutes in the UAE or Bahrain.
To those who would worry about Maddow’s safety at a Trump rally here in the United States, I’d put her chances at surviving at about the same or better as Sean Hannity showing up at a Black Lives Matter or Antifa rally.
Press freedom, foreign policy and American exceptionalism
One core value common to almost all libertarians and conservatives is that American Exceptionalism is rooted deeply in the relationship between a free press and a functioning democracy. There is much to be gained by importing this core value into our discussions about foreign policy. When asked, CPJ’s executive director Joel Simon said “I think the entry point is Mexico. Everyone should understand that drug traffickers murdering reporters covering the cartels is bad for Mexico and bad for the United States and that it’s appalling that the Mexican government is unable to defend this basic right. The U.S. government must lead by example and apply credible pressure on Mexico to make sure journalists can work freely.” Of course, many of the narco-trafficantes own powerful Mexican politicians willing to look the other way at journocide.
One possible good start is to encourage Congress to amend the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to specifically include sanctions against persons and governments involved in the murder or content-based detention of journalists. Indeed, like his predecessor, President Trump also has a “pen and a phone” and should be encouraged by conservatives and liberals alike to draft and sign an Executive Order supplementing the Magnitsky Act by specifically including the killing or uncharged jailing of journalists as a sanctionable act.
We can, and we must expect more from our leaders on this issue. People who describe themselves as “right-leaning” have a moral duty to consider our nation’s considerable power to influence trading partners to address what any reasonable person would call human rights violations.
We could even, for arguments’ sake, dispose of the moral arguments altogether and appeal to enlightened self-interest: if you truly believe in individual liberty as the keystone of a rational democracy, it follows as Locke explained, that you believe that a government is truly legitimate only when established by consent of the governed. In turn, that consent is only as informed as that which a free and unfettered press can provide to a polity engaging in the marketplace of ideas. That marketplace cannot function when you murder the merchants.
Charles Glasser was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook.” He teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.