Don’t let Trump si­lence the me­dia

The Globe and Mail (Atlantic Edition) - - OPINION -

Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump talked openly on Wed­nes­day about us­ing the power of govern­ment to pun­ish me­dia out­lets that run sto­ries he doesn’t like.

“With all of the Fake News com­ing out of NBC and the Net­works, at what point is it ap­pro­pri­ate to chal­lenge their Li­cense? Bad for coun­try!” the Pres­i­dent tweeted.

We have our own ques­tion: At what point is it ap­pro­pri­ate for Amer­i­cans to worry that Mr. Trump’s con­stant un­der­min­ing of free speech might pass the point of no re­turn?

Dur­ing his cam­paign, and ever since his elec­tion, the Pres­i­dent has re­peat­edly de­based the work of jour­nal­ists who have the temer­ity to point out his ques­tion­able state­ments, start­ing with his false claim that he drew the big­gest in­au­gu­ra­tion crowd in his­tory.

He is re­spon­si­ble for the now wide­spread use of the cliché “fake news” to de­scribe in­con­ve­nient facts that are con­tra­dic­tory to a per­son’s in­ter­ests, or which put the lie to a per­son’s state­ments.

In Fe­bru­ary, he called the me­dia “the en­emy of the Amer­i­can peo­ple.” For good mea­sure, on Wed­nes­day he said that, “It’s frankly dis­gust­ing the way the press is able to write what­ever they want to write, and peo­ple should look into it.” He was speak­ing from the Oval Of­fice, the seat of Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial power.

We don’t doubt that Mr. Trump is per­son­ally un­happy about the fact that the crude, con­tra­dic­tory and of­ten false things he says are scru­ti­nized by the press. Or that he would very much like Amer­i­cans to agree with him that press free­dom is not in their in­ter­ests be­cause it is not in his.

But the Pres­i­dent is play­ing with fire. His re­lent­less at­tacks could build a mo­men­tum of their own, and no one who val­ues free speech should be com­pla­cent.

Yes, it may be easy to laugh off his threats, be­cause he makes so many and rarely sees them through. And yes, he is badly in­formed. Chal­leng­ing the broad­cast li­cences of Amer­i­can TV net­works would be dif­fi­cult be­cause, as was quickly pointed out by many, the net­works aren’t li­censed – only their in­di­vid­ual sta­tions are.

But as­sum­ing all will be well is a mis­take. Mr. Trump rep­re­sents a dan­ger­ous evo­lu­tion in U.S. po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. Other pres­i­dents have tried to sup­press in­for­ma­tion or acted in bad faith be­hind closed doors. But no mod­ern pres­i­dent be­fore this one pub­licly threat­ened mass govern­ment re­stric­tions on the press, or char­ac­ter­ized the en­tire me­dia, in a phrase bor­rowed from to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes, as “the en­emy of the peo­ple.”

He is us­ing his of­fice to sow doubt among his sup­port­ers about the ne­ces­sity of a free press, and us­ing Twit­ter to ham­mer home the idea that they must rely only on him, or on re­porters deemed ac­cept­able by him, for the truth.

Some may take com­fort in their be­lief that the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion’s nearly un­lim­ited guar­an­tees of free­dom of speech and the press will pre­vent this Pres­i­dent from go­ing through with his threats.

But those who do should re­mem­ber that the con­sti­tu­tions of Rus­sia and Turkey guar­an­tee free­dom of the press, and yet the gov­ern­ments of both coun­tries have been able to si­lence me­dia they don’t like with re­pres­sive mea­sures, in­clud­ing the re­vo­ca­tion of li­cences, and leg­is­lated cen­sor­ship up­held by courts stacked with po­lit­i­cal cronies will­ing to ig­nore the con­sti­tu­tion.

This week in Turkey, a Wall Street Jour­nal re­porter was sen­tenced in ab­sen­tia to two years and a month in prison for “en­gag­ing in ter­ror­ist pro­pa­ganda,” be­cause she wrote a col­umn that dis­pleased the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan.

The con­vic­tion was handed down in the mid­dle of a wide­spread me­dia crack­down in Turkey. Jour­nal­ists and edi­tors have been rounded up, im­pris­oned and charged for do­ing noth­ing more than re­port­ing the facts – an un­for­giv­able crime in the eyes of the no­to­ri­ously thin-skinned and au­to­cratic Mr. Er­do­gan.

In Rus­sia, jour­nal­ists have been mur­dered and as­saulted, and for­eign cor­re­spon­dents are de­nied ac­cess to trou­bled parts of the coun­try. The govern­ment has out­lawed some speech out­right, and fur­ther re­lies on cor­rupt courts to harass any­one who pub­licly crit­i­cizes or ques­tions those in power.

And yet ev­ery sin­gle crit­i­cal story that re­porters in Turkey and Rus­sia have tried and failed to pub­lish has os­ten­si­bly been pro­tected by con­sti­tu­tional guar­an­tees against govern­ment in­ter­fer­ence.

Th­ese states of af­fairs did not come about overnight, and they wouldn’t ex­ist with­out the sup­port of many Rus­sians and Turks will­ing to be­lieve their lead­ers’ claims that press re­stric­tions are in their coun­try’s best in­ter­est.

Any coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tion of a free press, Canada’s in­cluded, is only as valu­able as its ci­ti­zens’ and politi­cians’ will­ing­ness to de­fend it vig­or­ously.

In the United States, that crit­i­cal right is un­der one of the most per­ni­cious and sus­tained at­tacks in its his­tory. It would be a po­ten­tially fa­tal er­ror to as­sume that noth­ing bad will come of it.

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