Trump’s Attacks on Media Violate Basic Norms of Press Freedom, Human Rights Experts say

Aug 3 2018

By David Kaye and Edison Lanza (*)

GENEVA / WASHINGTON, Aug 3 2018 (IPS) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the free press are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts.

The President has labelled the media as being the “enemy of the American people” “very dishonest” or “fake news,” and accused the press of “distorting democracy” or spreading “conspiracy theories and blind hatred”.

These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law. We are especially concerned that these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.

Over the course of his presidency, Mr. Trump and others within his administration, have sought to undermine reporting that had uncovered waste, fraud, abuse, potential illegal conduct, and disinformation.

Each time the President calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavoured outlets, he suggests nefarious motivations or animus. But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations.

It is critical that the U.S. administration promote the role of a vibrant press and counter rampant disinformation. To this end, we urge President Trump not only to stop using his platform to denigrate the media but to condemn these attacks, including threats directed at the press at his own rallies.

The attack on the media goes beyond President Trump’s language. We also urge his entire administration, including the Department of Justice, to avoid pursuing legal cases against journalists in an effort to identify confidential sources, an effort that undermines the independence of the media and the ability of the public to have access to information.

We urge the Government to stop pursuing whistle-blowers through the tool of the Espionage Act, which provides no basis for a person to make an argument about the public interest of such information.

We stand with the independent media in the United States, a community of journalists and publishers and broadcasters long among the strongest examples of professional journalism worldwide. We especially urge the press to continue, where it does so, its efforts to hold all public officials accountable.

We encourage all media to act in solidarity against the efforts of President Trump to favour some outlets over others.

Two years of attacks on the press could have long term negative implications for the public’s trust in media and public institutions. Two years is two years too much, and we strongly urge that President Trump and his administration and his supporters end these attacks.


*David Kaye is the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the United Nations and Edison Lanza is Special Rapporteur for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.


Annex 1:

Are Journalists the Enemy of the People? Ivanka Trump Says They’re Not

By Katie Rogers* – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Ivanka Trump appeared on Thursday to break step with two of the most contentious issues surrounding her father’s administration: She disagreed with President Trump’s position that the press is the enemy of the people, and she said the administration’s hard-line stance on immigration that resulted in separating children from their parents was a “low point” during her time in the White House.

When asked during an interview with the news site Axios whether she shared her father’s vitriol for the news media, Ms. Trump, a senior adviser to the president, said, “I do not.”

Mr. Trump feels the news media cover him unfavorably and has repeatedly complained about the press since his candidacy. He recently has ramped up his attacks, particularly in front of angry crowds of supporters at rallies and in his Twitter posts.

Ms. Trump, the president’s eldest daughter, said in the interview that she shared some of his complaints about the media, but stopped short of condemning journalists.

“I’ve certainly received my fair share of reporting on me personally that I know not to be fully accurate, so I have some sensitivity around why people have concerns and gripe, especially when they’re sort of targeted,” Ms. Trump said. “But no, I do not feel that the media is the enemy of the people.”

With her comments on the media, Ms. Trump became the lone senior administration official to publicly say that she did not share the president’s view. Her statement stood in contrast to a news briefing held later that day by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.

When asked repeatedly by a CNN reporter to publicly say whether she supported or denounced Mr. Trump’s view that the media are the enemy, Ms. Sanders said that she was “here to speak on behalf of the president.”

“He’s made his comments clear,” Ms. Sanders said. By late afternoon on Thursday, Mr. Trump said in a tweet that his daughter “correctly said no” that the news media are the enemy. But he again lashed out at what he described as “FAKE NEWS.”

Ms. Trump’s comments on migrant family separations, while couched in emotion, were closer to White House policy.

At first, she appeared to voice dissent on how families had been separated at the United States border with Mexico. “I felt very strongly about that, and I am very vehemently against family separation and the separation of parents and children,” she said.

Ms. Trump referred to the issue of family separations in the past tense, but hundreds of families remain apart. Some 3,000 children were forcibly removed from a parent as a result of the administration’s so-called zero-tolerance policy on immigration. Officials are still working to reunite hundreds of children with their parents; as of last week, about 1,800 migrant families had been reunited.

“Ivanka’s comments today echo comments previously made by the president,” Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The president has publicly stated that he, too, does not like to see families separated and that he urges Congress to take action.”

In the interview, Ms. Trump issued what was essentially a retooled version of the White House’s approach to immigration — similar to the softer tone that has been struck by other administration figures like Melania Trump, the Slovenian-born first lady.

“I am a daughter of an immigrant — my mother grew up in Communist Czech Republic — but we are a country of laws,” Ms. Trump added. “We have to be very careful about incentivizing behavior that puts children at risk of being trafficked, at risk of entering this country with coyotes or making an incredibly dangerous journey alone.”

“These are not easy issues; these are incredibly difficult issues, and like the rest of the country, I experience them in a very emotional way.”

Before her interview on Thursday, Ms. Trump had kept her comments on the immigration policy contained to Twitter, where she lashed out on Twitter at “trolls” who condemned her for posting cheery photos of her own children even as the government was separating young migrants from their parents.

The president said she had addressed the issue with him privately, which further inflamed her critics.

A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 3, 2018, on Page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: A Trump Who Refuses To Condemn Journalism.


*White House correspondent for The New York Times. She started at The Times in 2014 and has since focused on features and breaking news. She has covered Washington in the Trump era. She is a native Hoosier and a graduate of Loyola University Chicago.


Annex 2:

The term ‘fake news’ is doing great harm

Joshua Habgood-Coote* – The Conversation UK

During a recent press conference in the UK, Donald Trump shut down a reporter from the news network he loves to hate. “CNN is fake news – I don’t take questions from CNN,” he said, moving swiftly on to a reporter from Fox News.

It’s easy to think that everyone knows what “fake news” means – it was Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017, after all. But to think it stops there is mistaken – and politically dangerous. Not only do different people have opposing views about the meaning of “fake news”, in practice the term undermines the intellectual values of democracy – and there is a real possibility that it means nothing. We would be better off if we stopped using it.

We can start to see the problems with “fake news” by seeing how much people disagree about its meaning. Some use it as a catch-all term for problematic or doubtful information, an important example being the untrue story that surfaced on social media during the 2016 US election campaign that Hillary Clinton was involved with a child sex ring run out of a Washington pizza house.

Some people use “fake news” exclusively to talk about false stories. For example, Facebook seems to think that “fake news” just means news that is false, which is why they prefer to talk about “false news”. But many journalists use “fake news” to mean something close to “lie”, meaning it involves an intention to deceive.

Buzzfeed editor, Craig Silverman – who is credited with helping to popularise the phrase – has investigated Macedonian clickbait farms, which make up stories to attract profitable clicks. On his definition, as well as intending to deceive people, there is a profit motive involved. This definition fits well with clickbait farms but less well with politically motivated speech.

But “fake news” doesn’t only refer to false stories or lies. American philosopher Michael Lynch has identified what he calls the “internet shell game” – the deliberate spreading of a mixture of true and false stories to confuse the public. In this way, some true information is discredited with the false stories they sit alongside. We might think in this kind of case the whole mass of stories — both true and false — counts as “fake news”. This brings the idea of “fake news” closer to Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt’s notion of bullshit than lying. A liar says what he or she believes to be false, whereas the bullshitter says whatever is in their interest, irrespective of its truth.

The US alt-right has a more diffuse understanding of “fake news” – using it to refer to what they claim is a systematic left-wing bias in the news. This allegation of systematic bias is often used to undermine legitimate stories, as when Trump brought up media bias to dismiss The Sun’s reports that he criticised the UK prime minister, Theresa May.

Empty words

The phrase “fake news” is a mess of conflicting meanings. Philosophy of language gives us several tools for thinking about terms that are in flux in this way – perhaps their meaning is sensitive to context, or they are contested – but my preferred diagnosis is that “fake news” simply has no meaning. It is nonsense – empty words.

So why use it? In the mouths of right-wing demagogues, the accusation is a command not to believe a story and to distrust the institution that produced it. In a speech on July 24 to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, Trump made this message abundantly clear, saying: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.”

This kind of speech is a classic example of what American philosopher Jason Stanley calls undermining propaganda: speech that signals commitment to a value while working to undermine it. An accusation that something is “fake news” seeks to be associated with striving to maintain truth, objectivity and critical thinking – but the effect of its repeated use is to undermine those very values. This undermining has several mechanisms: allegations of fakery sap public trust in legitimate news institutions and intellectual insults crowd out reasonable discourse.

Outside North America and Europe, the anti-democratic work of “fake news” is more explicit. In several countries, “fake news” has been used to justify censorship laws – the Burmese Military and the president of the Philippines have both used it to dismiss reports that oppose their preferred narratives.

Despite its anti-democratic effects, the association of “fake news” with democratic values makes it a honeypot for establishment figures, who have eagerly taken it up, putting on conferences and calling for a “science of fake news”. This attempt at appropriation is problematic. Trying to use “fake news” in a precise way mires the defenders of democratic values in definitional wrangles that could have been avoided by just using everyday terms.

Using the term also lends legitimacy to its propagandistic uses, making them look like reasonable contributions to public discourse. We might also worry that well-intentioned users of “fake news” will be tempted to use the demagogue’s tools to engage in intellectual policing, undermining their own commitment to open public discourse.

If we want to avoid empty talk and legitimating propaganda, we should simply stop using “fake news”. What should we put in its place? I suspect that we can do quite a lot with ordinary terms such as “lie”, “bullshit” and “unreliable”. Perhaps we do need new terms, but we shouldn’t start by trying to repurpose the demagagoue’s tools to defend democracy.


*Joshua Habgood-Coote, Vice Chancellor’s fellow, University of Bristol. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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