US: President Trump must end attacks on media freedom

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by US President Donald Trump’s continuing attacks on media freedom and the public’s right to information. The President’s recent decision to exclude critical media outlets, or indeed those who don’t explicitly support his administration, from an informal White House press briefing, not long after publicly referring to many of these media organisations as “enem[ies] of the American People”, is part of a disturbing trend of attacks on freedom of expression under the new administration.

The media organisations excluded from the briefing on 24 February included the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, and the BBC. Both the New York Times and CNN had been referred to by President Trump as “enem[ies] of the American People” on 17 February.

The exclusion of critical media organisations from the press “gaggle” undermines the media’s essential role in questioning and reporting on the actions of authorities. The US has a long standing tradition of a free and open press, and President Trump’s efforts to undermine media organisations which are critical of his actions in office must end if he is to uphold the guarantees for a free press set out in the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

The media has an essential role in any democratic society based on the rule of law, and to suggest that media organisations working to expose information in the public interest are the enemy is not only dangerous rhetoric from the President, but patently inaccurate,” said Hughes.

President Trump has been critical of journalists and news organisation since his campaign for office, but in recent weeks these attacks have intensified, with the President repeatedly referring to reporting he disagrees with or which criticises his actions as “fake news”.

Fake or false news provisions are used in a number of authoritarian states to stifle dissent and imprison critical journalists, and create a chilling effect on the media environment. This is by no means an example the US should seek to follow, and the use of such tactics by the Trump administration is likely to embolden authoritarian leaders around the world seeking to suppress media freedom.

President Trump’s has also made remarks suggesting the use of anonymous sources by the press should be prohibited. Whistleblowers and anonymous sources who reveal information in the public interest are critical to holding governments to account, and have been central in exposing some of the greatest US political scandals of the 20th century, including Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. The protection of sources is vital to journalistic freedom and the right to information, and is a well-established principle in international law relating to free expression.

The US has an obligation under Article 19 of the ICCPR to protect freedom of expression and information, and has committed under UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/2 to creating a “safe and enabling” environment for journalists to carry out their work.

In order to respect its obligations under international law and the US Constitution, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Trump administration to immediately end attempts to restrict media freedom and undermine journalists reporting on government activities. President Trump must put an end to damaging political rhetoric which portrays a free press as the enemy, rather than as a vital element of a mature and healthy democracy.