It’s now clear that one of Donald Trump’s top priorities as president is to discredit, harass, and intimidate his critics, or anyone who exposes how his administration is working.
Following his inauguration, he declared a “running war with the media,” ranted about journalists’ coverage of the size of his inaugural crowds and railed against “fake news.” But his hostility deepened with his tweet describing the media as “the enemy of the American people,” his anti-press tirade at the Conservative Political Action Conference and his warning he would “do something” about journalists’ use of anonymous sources—though his staff often requires anonymity from journalists they brief. Most worrying yesterday was the exclusion of outlets whose coverage he disliked from a White House press meeting.
Trump rails about leaks of information that is embarrassing, if not particularly sensitive. He and some of his supporters have called the leaks a threat, urged investigations, and spoken darkly of the need to “reform” supposedly leaky government agencies.
Ominously, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner is reported to have met with executives of Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, to complain about the network’s coverage. On the campaign trail, Trump threatened to block a major deal by the company, raising questions about whether the administration might use this to pressure Time Warner to back off on CNN’s critical coverage.
Trump has said his criticism of the media is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. But there is a difference between protected speech and threats, intimidation, retaliation, and smear campaigns backed up by the power of the presidency. And in human rights terms, while government leaders have a right to free expression, they also have a duty to protect it—including for critical media—to secure the public’s right to information.
Demagogues in other countries regularly use such tactics to silence critics and restrict the media’s ability to inform the public. Too often they have paved the road to even greater assaults on rights and democracy. Ultimately, the country as a whole—regardless of party affiliation—will lose if it continues.