NEW YORK—The White House must ensure that journalists traveling abroad with President Trump and Secretary Tillerson are granted the access required to do their jobs, PEN America said today.  The President’s traveling entourage should take seriously its role as a standard-bearer for American values abroad.

Concerns about press access and the Trump Administration’s willingness to stand up for journalists arose at the outset of the trip on May 19, when three reporters who were approved by the White House to accompany the President were denied visas to Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his itinerary. The journalists, Orly Azouley of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Gil Tamary of Channel 10, and Dan Raviv of i24News were reportedly denied entry visas due to their affiliation with Israeli news outlets, even though all are U.S. citizens and Raviv had previously done reporting in Saudi Arabia. Azouley, who described her visa denial as “a snub for the President,” addressed a Tweet to Trump asking him to intercede; the White House has not responded.

On Sunday, May 21, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a joint press conference with the Saudi Foreign Minister. The U.S. press pool accompanying Trump and Tillerson were neither notified of the press conference nor included in the event. A State Department spokesperson stated that Secretary Tillerson was invited to the press conference at the last minute, and acknowledged that “ideally, members of the U.S. press corps should have had the option” to attend the conference.  

These events contribute to a pattern of apparent Administration indifference to U.S. values of press freedom and freedom of expression, and the political contexts in which Presidential appearances are taking place.  In a May 22 interview with CNBC, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lauded the fact that President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was met with “not a single hint of a protester.” Secretary Ross’ comments indicated that he is either unaware of or unconcerned by the fact that all expressions of dissent are banned in Saudi Arabia and subject to harsh punishments.

“On President Trump’s first foreign trip, the eyes of the world are on him and his team.  When the U.S. President travels overseas, he should model behavior that reflects American values and principles.  President Trump’s failure to stand up for the three journalists whose Saudi visas were denied, the exclusion of American journalists from Tillerson’s joint press conference, and Secretary Ross’ ill-informed comments send a message of indifference toward free expression rights, playing into the hands of governments around the world that run roughshod over these freedoms,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America.  “The White House and the State Department must ensure that the traveling press pool is given full access to the itinerary, and must stand up to other countries’ efforts to deny entry to journalists on spurious grounds.”

Secretary Tillerson has previously curtailed press involvement on his foreign trips and in his meetings with foreign officials. On Tillerson’s first state trip to Asia, in March, the Secretary rejected traveling with a foreign press corps, instead choosing one reporter from an online conservative outlet to accompany him. Later during the trip, on March 17, Secretary Tillerson barred pool reporters from attending a meeting at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, while allowing a team from Fox News to attend.

PEN America, the free expression advocacy group, has been monitoring the actions of the Trump Administration with an eye towards ensuring the continued exercise of press freedoms and free expression. PEN America’s work includes it April 2017 report Trump the Truth, as well as its Trump Timeline, which tracks statements and actions by Trump and his administration which threaten to undermine free expression and related freedoms.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT
Sarah Edkins, Director of Communications: sedkins@pen.org, +1 646.779.4830