WASHINGTON (AN) — Human rights experts with two prominent international organizations took the unusual move of jointly condemning U.S. President Donald Trump's administration for its "strategic" attacks on American news media outlets that could trigger real violence against journalists.
Two special rapporteurs, or investigators, who are charged with upholding freedom of expression around the world warned that the Trump administration's vitriolic language and combative actions against journalists are purposely meant to undermine the mission of U.S.-based news organizations.
The two experts, David Kaye and Edison Lanza, called on Trump and the senior administration officials who follow his lead to immediately cease attacking the free press and refrain from attempting to weaken journalists' traditional role of holding government accountable, honest and transparent.
“His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts,” said Kaye, the United Nations' special rapporteur for freedom of expression, and Lanza, who holds a similar position with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
They noted that Trump has repeatedly described reporters and news media outlets as the “enemy of the American people,” “very dishonest,” and “fake news,” and he has accused the press of “distorting democracy” and spreading “conspiracy theories and blind hatred."
But they emphasized these verbal attacks can incite hatred that goes well beyond the use of language.
“These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law,” Kaye and Lanza said in a joint statement from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “We are especially concerned that these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.”
U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive at Andrews Air Force Base (AN/Shealah Craighead)
Violations of 'basic norms of press freedom'
Trump's attacks are meant to appeal to his political base, sow seeds of doubt about verifiable facts and undermine reporting on potential illegal conduct, according to Kaye, who was appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, and Lanza, whose role is part of the Organization of American States, or OAS.
“Each time the President calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavored outlets, he suggests nefarious motivations or animus," said Kaye and Lanza, who also urged the Trump administration to stop trying to uncover journalists' sources and to prosecute whistleblowers that leak to the news media. "But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations."
The two investigators said the Trump administration must begin promoting the role of a vibrant press and counter rampant disinformation by no longer using his influence to denigrate the media. They called on Trump to condemn attacks and threats to journalists, including some at his campaign rallies.
“Two years of attacks on the press could have long term negative implications for the public’s trust in media and public institutions," they said.
Dangerous times for journalists
In May, two international organizations dedicated to supporting press freedoms warned that hatred of journalism fueled by autocrats and wars is a threat to democracies that must be countered by new laws, training and other resources to let journalists work safely.
Reporters Without Borders said the level of hatred for the press “is steadily more visible” in 2018 among the 180 countries that it monitors each year. In its latest index of world press freedom, the Paris-based organization said hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to nations with authoritarian governments like Turkey and Egypt.
Trump took the United States down in the rankings, while in Europe, where press freedom is safest, four of the year’s five worst declines are European nations Czech Republic, Malta, Serbia and Slovakia. At a May meeting of the International Federation of Journalists, representatives of the press explored how to improve journalists’ safety around the globe, the international organization reported.
More than 1,100 journalists and media staff have been killed in the line of duty in the past 12 years, the Brussels-based IFJ said, and many other journalists are routinely violated on the job due to law enforcement and restrictive laws.
In the United States in late June, a gunman opened fire with a shotgun on the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five people and gravely injuring several others. Journalists dove for cover under their desks and sought help on social media, with one reporter calling the shooting scene a “war zone” and a photographer escaping harm by leaping over a dead colleague.
The suspected shooter was identified as a 38-year-old local man who held a long-standing grudge against the newspaper. Even so, the tragedy did not deter Trump from tempering his longstanding hostility towards the news media.
Only a week after the shooting, he again encouraged contempt for journalists and the news business by complaining about its "bad people" and "fake news" at a rally in Montana with news crews present.
"I see the way they write. They're so damn dishonest," Trump told an enthusiastic crowd. "And I don't mean all of them, because some of the finest people I know are journalists really. Hard to believe when I say that. I hate to say it, but I have to say it. But 75% of those people are downright dishonest. Downright dishonest. They're fake. They're fake."
Appeal falls on deaf ears
The New York Times' publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial page editor James Bennet told Trump in July that his language was "not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” and describing news media as “the enemy of the people” would lead to "a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”
Little more than a week after their meeting, which was supposed to be off the record, Trump said on Twitter that he and Sulzberger “spent much time talking about vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!”
In response, Sulzberger published a statement sharing the concerns he had voiced to Trump, which were similar to the subsequent warnings from the U.N. and OAS special rapporteurs.
"I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press," Sulzberger said.
Trump's frequent use of the term “fake news” has emboldened his supporters to angrily denounce or exclude journalists in public settings. CNN said a White House correspondent recently was excluded from a Trump event, prompting the White House Correspondents Association to complain.
At a Trump rally in Tampa, Florida, in July, the animosity grew so intense that Jim Acosta, CNN's chief White House correspondent, filmed the Trump supporters disparaging him. "I’m very worried that the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in somebody getting hurt. We should not treat our fellow Americans this way. The press is not the enemy," Acosta said.
At a White House briefing in August, Acosta challenged Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to disavow the president's statement that journalists are “the enemy of the people.” Sanders declined, saying she was personally attacked in the news and faced job threats. Acosta abruptly left.
"I walked out of the end of that briefing because I am totally saddened by what just happened," Acosta said. "Sarah Sanders was repeatedly given a chance to say the press is not the enemy and she wouldn't do it. Shameful."