Trump vs. Acosta: The Attack on Journalism is Spreading Around the World | Opinion

It’s a move straight from the strongman’s playbook: the bellicose leader is displeased by a line of questioning, and so turns on the media worker, accusing him of being a liar. His staff later accuse the same reporter of a crime and strips him of his privileges as a journalist.

President Trump’s altercation with CNN’s Jim Acosta - in which the correspondent was bizarrely accused of “assaulting” a White House intern and then had his credentials revoked - is, depressingly, part of a trend reflected all over the world, as media workers are routinely vilified and singled out. At Reporters Without Borders, we know this does not end well.

In compiling our Press Freedom Index for 2018, RSF identified a climate of hate building up against independent media around the world. It’s no surprise that in countries where rhetoric against journalists is on the rise, violence soon follows. Reporters, more than anyone, know that words have consequences.

In his speech celebrating his election as president of Brazil last month, Jair Bolsonaro was very clear about who his enemy was, and will be. His victory had come, he said “despite the big media that criticize me and insult me.”Meanwhile, His press officer Carlos Eduardo Guimarães had already sent a message to political journalists, accusing them of perpetrating a hoax, and calling them “SCUM”.

So far this year, four Brazilian journalists have been killed in the line of duty, of a shocking total of 78 journalists worldwide, setting 2018 to be one of the deadliest years on record for media.

Bolsonaro and Trump are but two of the new populist leaders who take an openly antagonistic stance towards the media. Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, Orban in Hungary and Duterte in the Philippines all spend at least as much time attacking the media as attacking their political opponents.

The Philippines saw the worst massacres of journalists in history in 2009 when nine years ago, 34 reporters were abducted and killed while covering a local election.

You would have thought that would have given the country’s politicians pause for thought. But like Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and others, Duterte has deliberately set himself up as an enemy of the media, attacking ABS-CBN, one of the largest TV networks, and declaring—falsely—that the news website Rappler was fully foreign-owned and therefore in breach of constitutional rules on the media.

In November 2017, in a press conference with President Trump, Duterte referred to reporters as “spies”. And during his election campaign he announced that: “Just because you're a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you're a son of a bitch. Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”

In India, journalists who question the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party narrative are increasingly subject to vicious online attacks. In Turkey, critical newspapers are either closed down or taken over by the government, and dozens of reporters have found their work reclassified as terrorism. In Hungary, press and broadcasters are subjected to some of the most stringent regulation in the world. And in the United States, the president is barely capable of opening his mouth or composing a tweet without accusing a journalist or media outlet of lying.

Verbal attacks against journalists are also on the rise in Europe, and have resulted in weakening the media and eroding the climate for press freedom, as well as paving the way for acts of physical violence against journalists. In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman - who styles himself as the Czech Donald Trump - has a long history of bashing the media. Last year, at a press conference, he waved a dummy Kalashnikov inscribed with the words ‘for journalists’, and just last week he joked “I love journalists, that’s why I may organise a special banquet for them this evening at the Saudi embassy.”

In Malta, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in October 2017 after years of harassment and abuse online, in retaliation for her reporting. Over a year later, top government officials continue to pursue vexatious defamation suits against her posthumously, including Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Muscat is also pursuing a suit against her son Matthew, who continues her investigations and his fight for justice for her murder. Four months after Caruana Galizia’s assassination, investigative journalist Jan Kuciak was killed in Slovakia, where Prime Minister Fico had been insulting journalists for a decade.

The idea of the what Germans call Lugenpresse - the “lying press” - has animated populist and reactionary movements for almost as long as the press itself has existed. Demagogues work hard to forge their own visions of reality, a vision that does not countenance any ideas that may exist outside of it. So anyone presenting an alternative - an objective truth or a contrary viewpoint - must be presented as personally malignant.

Reporters cling to the idea that there is an objective truth, and that it is better that people know what that truth is: the foundation of the very idea of journalism is that progress is made when society is equipped with the facts.

But now we are faced with a war on fact, and suddenly journalists are seen as combatants. In the past, a press officer’s job would have been to convince reporters: now, from Washington to Brasilia, the task appears to be to abuse them and cast doubts on their professionalism. While practically every state constitution in the free world contains a commitment to free speech and a free press, the practice is often very different.

This is the atmosphere in which thousands of journalists across the world carry out their work every day. It is sadly ironic that in an era when the means of relaying information have never been easier, the cost of speaking and writing freely has never been higher.

It’s crucially important that we don’t allow attacks on the press to become normalized. In London this week, Reporters Without Borders - known internationally as Reporters sans frontières (RSF) - will present this year’s Press Freedom Awards to journalists from the Philippines, India, Malta, and the United Kingdom. Our awards don’t just honor great reporting, they draw attention to the conditions in which great reporting take place.

The winners and nominees of the RSF Press Freedom Awards did not set out in their careers as journalists to win awards, or to be lauded as “brave”. They should not have to be brave to carry out their jobs and report the truth around them.

But the rest of us should be very grateful for just how brave they are.

Christophe Deloire has been secretary-general and executive director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) since 2012. He ran one of the leading French journalism schools, the CFJ, from 2008 to 2012. He was previously an investigative reporter for the French news magazine Le Point from 1998 to 2007. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​

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