Sounding the Alarm: International Experts and Trump’s Attacks on the Media
While President Trump’s frequent attacks on the press have been widely criticized within the United States, his hostility toward the media has also sent shockwaves abroad, drawing condemnation from global experts and international press advocacy groups. Human rights representatives of intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations (UN), who direct most of their attention to rights violations by repressive regimes, have also denounced Trump’s attacks on the media. An overview of recent statements to this effect indicates that human rights watchdogs around the world believe press freedom is under attack as never before in the United States.
Perhaps the most prominent critic has been the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who in late August delivered a strong rebuke of President Trump’s attacks on the press in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally. Mr. al-Hussein labeled President Trump’s attitude toward the press “a stunning turnaround,” noting, “It’s really quite amazing when you think that freedom of the press, not only a cornerstone of the Constitution but very much something the United States defended over the years, is now itself under attack from the president himself.” Al-Hussein also expressed his fear that Trump’s words could constitute “incitement” for attacks on journalists.
But the high commissioner is not the only expert who’s expressed such alarm. One of the world’s preeminent experts on free expression is the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, an independent human rights expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on free expression around the world. The current Rapporteur, University of California, Irvine professor David Kaye, has repeatedly indicated his profound alarm at the state of free expression in the United States today.
In recent months, Kaye has expressed concern over privacy issues on the U.S. border, “draconian proposals to undermine the right to protest” at the state level, a failure to recognize the vital role of dissent in our democracy, and an escalating climate of hostility toward the media. In an April interview with Newsweek, Kaye discussed “the potential for real regression in the U.S.’s commitment to rights,” noting that the Trump Administration “is seeking to intimidate the press … and is taking specific steps to undermine access to information.” That same month, Kaye decried Trump’s attacks on journalists as “soft censorship,” concluding they were “serious causes for alarm.”
In his May 3 statement for World Press Freedom Day, Kaye noted that “All too many leaders see journalism as the enemy, reporters as rogue actors, [tweets] as terrorists, and bloggers as blasphemers.” Kaye didn’t name specific leaders, but “journalism as the enemy” clearly includes Trump’s statements (only a few months prior) that the media is “the opposition party.” Kaye further warned that “the whipping up of hatred against the media” could have a “long-term deleterious impact on the right to information and the democratic process.” And in a March joint declaration, Kaye and three other experts (representing Europe, the Americas, and Africa) denounced public authorities who claim “the media is ‘the opposition’ or ‘is lying’”—a claim frequently made by President Trump.
Also in March, Kaye and his colleague Maina Kiai—the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association—implored U.S. lawmakers to “stop the ‘alarming’ trend of ‘undemocratic’ anti-protest bills designed to criminalize or impede the rights” to free expression and assembly. Since Trump’s inauguration, lawmakers in 19 states have “introduced legislation restricting assembly rights by various degrees.”
This is not the first time that UN Special Rapporteurs have expressed concerns about free expression in the United States: Consider the police response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, or issues of surveillance in the name of national security. But there has been a palpable uptick in the frequency and severity with which the United Nations has monitored free expression in the United States. For instance, the UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression has sent a total of six official comments on legislation and policy to the United States since 2011; four of the six have come in the last seven months.
Groups of journalists around the world are also speaking out about the new threats their American colleagues are facing. The International Press Institute, which represents journalists, editors, and media heads in 120 countries, has closely monitored Trump’s attacks on reporters, stating on May 20: “his attempts to smear and discredit the critical news media signal the loss of one of the world’s most consequential defenders of press freedom.” The Inter American Press Association (IAPA), which focuses on the Western Hemisphere, has also repeatedly condemned Trump’s treatment of the media. In January, the IAPA’s president warned: “We have the experience in the IAPA of seeing how other presidents of the region went from incendiary speech to direct censorship of media and journalists.”
This March, dozens of Mexican journalists, writers, and publishers signed an open letter expressing solidarity with journalists in the United States. Describing today as a “time of an unprecedented, relentless assault on the free press of the United States by the Trump administration,” the signatories conclude with: “although we never could believe this day would come, we now stand with you.” The letter is all the more striking because, for years, the U.S. press has carried stories of brutal attacks on Mexican journalists, often by drug cartels. Over 100 journalists in Mexico have been murdered since 2000. But now, Mexican journalists see reason to fear for their U.S. counterparts.
It is unfamiliar to think of America as hostile ground for journalists. And it is unsettling to see the United States censured alongside well-known persecutors of free speech. But these global commentators bring a perspective that benefits from its distance from the cut and thrust of today’s hyper-politicized American discourse. Americans concerned about press freedoms here in the United States should heed their advice . . . and their warnings.