With the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide at an all-time high, press freedom groups are drawing a direct line between President Donald Trump’s verbal slugfest with some of America’s most venerable news institutions and the adoption of his “fake news” mantra by autocrats and dictators around the world.
“We’re seeing an unprecedented attack on both the institution of journalism and the media, as well as very personal attacks on individual journalists and individual media outlets,” says Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “And what this does is it creates an environment in which journalists operate less safely.”
The CPJ’s 2017 press freedom survey shows 262 journalists are behind bars worldwide, slightly higher than the number a year ago. More than half the total are in Turkey, China, and Egypt.
“We saw the term ‘fake news’ being used in the Philippines, in Russia, in China, in Egypt to justify their own oppression of the media in attempts to delegitimize journalists” Radsch told VOA. “We’ve also seen China saying, ‘Hey the U.S. is finally waking up to what we’ve been saying the whole time about the media being problematic,’ and that’s not what we want to see around the world.”
An opinion piece in China’s Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper this month said, “If the president of the United States calls leading media outlets a stain on America, then negative news about China and other countries should be taken with a grain of salt, since it is likely that bias and political agendas are distorting the real picture.”
British scholar Hisham Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, says fallout from Trump’s “fake news” charges is serious and should not be underestimated.
“When Trump uses his own freedom of expression to denigrate the media’s ability to report the facts, and often puts forward his own ‘fake news’, it has the effect of empowering others who would like to do the same,” Hellyer said.
Trump has hammered at the “fake news” theme in hundreds of Twitter posts, public comments and speeches, singling out media powerhouses like CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times for special criticism.
He once called CNN, “the enemy of the people.”
The president’s tactics have fueled a polarizing national debate about what Trump defenders call persistent media bias, and critics describe as hard-nosed reporting.
Studies show coverage of Trump has tilted heavily negative. An analysis by the nonprofit Pew Research Center showed reporting about the first months of the Trump presidency was 62 percent negative and 5 percent positive.
Coverage for the same period of President Barack Obama’s presidency was 42 percent positive and 20 percent negative, according to Pew. The leader of the Pew Journalism Project cautioned the result is not evidence of media bias.
Trump’s critics see nothing exceptional in those figures given the volume of missteps and misstatements coming from the White House, but the president and his supporters cite them as evidence of the media’s malign intent.
Stung by Trump’s criticisms and polls showing low public trust in the media, CNN and the big newspapers have fought back with ad campaigns and fresh slogans emphasizing their accuracy and objectivity.
But a series of recent high-profile reporting blunders in stories about the White House has damaged the media’s reputation for trustworthiness, and given Trump fresh ammunition.
Earlier this month, CNN erroneously reported that the Trump campaign had been offered the contents of hacked emails from the campaign of his Democratic Party competitor, Hillary Clinton, before they were released by Wikileaks last year. The Washington Post later reported accurately that the offer came days after Wikileaks published the emails.
Now, some of the world’s worst violators of media freedom are using Trump’s “fake news” refrain to justify press restrictions.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, asked about an Amnesty International report on systematic killings in Syrian prison, replied, “We’re living in a fake news era, as you know. Everybody knows it.”
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained international media are spreading lies about him, saying, “This is what we call fake news, isn’t it?”
Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who regularly quotes Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric, has ordered more than a dozen radio stations to close or stop broadcasting programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and shut down a leading independent newspaper.
Libyan media used the term in trying to discredit a CNN report on slavery among migrants, and Russia’s foreign ministry has begun posting stories it considers false on its website covered by the words “FAKE NEWS” in big red letters.
China’s top cyber security official cited “fake news” about a report ranking China last in the world in internet freedom.
Trump has welcomed several known foes of free media to the White House. He hailed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a friend, despite that country’s reputation as the world’s leading jailer of journalists.
With Trump at his side during a recent ASEAN summit, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called reporters “spies.”
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak have raised the issue of “fake news.”
“It’s hard enough to be a journalist in dictatorships like Cambodia when the United States is setting a good example,” Tom Malinowski, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Labor, told VOA.
“Now every dictator who wants to ban media he doesn’t like can say, ‘Trump does it so why can’t I?'” said Malinowski, who served under President Obama.