The health of a free society can be measured by how it treats its reporters. A political culture’s handling of the free press is a leading indicator of the importance it places on personal liberty. By that measure, global attitudes toward classically liberal democracy are backsliding to the bad old days.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, this is the third consecutive year in which there are more than 250 reporters in prison. CPJ suggests that the “authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is more than a temporary spike.” In places like China, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Burma/Myanmar, reporters have been targeted for their work.
In Mexico, Syria, Colombia, India, and Afghanistan, reporting the news is a particularly dangerous activity. Beyond the risk of imprisonment and persecution, this year has been far deadlier for journalists than last. It was perhaps with these figures in mind that Time Magazine named journalists—“the guardians in the war on truth”—as 2018’s person of the year.
Time tells the story of Maria Ressa, a 55-year-old Filipino blogger who faces political persecution for chronicling the rise of extrajudicial killing of drug users and dealers under President Rodrigo Duterte. The magazine noted that Reuters reporters Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were sentenced to 10 years in prison for documenting the murder and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. And perhaps most famously, it documented the slaughter of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi for the crime of expressing opinions with which Riyadh disagreed.
All this contributed to Reporters Without Borders’s sobering assessment of the state of journalism. The group estimates that 80 reporters were killed this year, nearly 350 are in prison, and another 60 more are hostages. “Journalists have never before been subjected to as much violence and abusive treatment as in 2018,” they wrote. This horrifying appraisal is getting a lot of attention in the United States, but not because of what it portends abroad. What’s captured American media’s notice is Reporters Without Borders’s claim that the United States has suddenly become one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a journalist.
In 2018, six American journalists died in the course of performing their jobs, putting the United States on par with perilous places like Mexico, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and India. Four of those six journalists were killed when a gunman targeted the Capital Gazette in Maryland—an news outlet against which the attacker had nursed a grudge for six years (the paper had published a 2011 article detailing a criminal-harassment case against him). Another two perished when they were struck by a falling tree while covering a storm in North Carolina. These are tragic deaths, but they hardly rank with murders attributable to political chaos or governmental corruption in other dangerous nations singled out by Reporters Without Borders.
The organization directly attributes the murder of several Mexican journalists to their reporting on well-connected drug cartels and governmental-level lethargy regarding human rights. Two Indian reporters were run over by the SUV of a village chief they had offended. Two Palestinian reporters were shot by Israeli forces while covering violent protests on the Gaza border. A Slovak reporter and his fiancé were murdered in their home after his investigation uncovered how European Union funds were being diverted to the local mob, and a 30-year-old Bulgarian television presenter was found raped and murdered following her report on a similar misuse of EU funds.
Even if the United States deserves its place of ignominy in purely numerical terms, there’s plenty of room for mitigating context. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find much of that, and you’d be right to suspect that to provide any would be to abandon a coveted opportunity to scold President Donald Trump from great moral heights.
USA Today’s write-up of Reporters Without Borders’s findings included a semi-extraneous paragraph about Donald Trump’s despicable attacks on journalists as the “enemy of the American people” and noted how he declined to correct Duterte when the Philippine president referred to reporters as “spies.” CNN, too, in its dispatch on the murder and oppression of reporters observed that Trump issues “verbal attacks on the news media.” Agence France-Presse noted that the organization “did not directly point the finger” at Trump, but its chief, Christophe Deloire, pointedly condemned “expressions of hatred” that can “legitimize violence.”
“For a certain kind of politician, there is an almost liberating genius to framing independent journalists as the enemy,” Time contributors wrote of Trump in its article on 2018’s persons of the year. Though its report features quotes from experts who note that the “post-truth” attacks on journalistic integrity by foreign heads of government preceded Trump’s 2016 election, it still notes that “Trump’s rhetoric has been embraced by leaders less restrained in their ability to tamp down on reporters.” Even the Committee to Protect Journalists drew some rather dubious parallels in its report on journalism’s annus horribilis by noting that the crackdown on reporters abroad “comes amid heightened global rhetoric about ‘fake news,’ of which U.S. President Donald Trump is the leading voice.”
The president and his allies have launched a strategic campaign to discredit reporters, and that has been accompanied by increased threats and even acts of violence targeting journalists and media institutions. It is unwise to undersell the potential of Trump’s reckless hostility toward journalists in inciting unstable people to acts of violence. But it is also injudicious and chauvinistic to attribute circumstances abroad to Trump when he is, at most, an exacerbating factor.
Reporters Without Borders now ranks the United States as only 45th among 180 nations in terms of press freedom, which is a status the group attributes almost entirely to Donald Trump’s anti-media antagonism. It justifies the move adequately enough, though its decision becomes less defensible in light of the praise that the group heaps upon the freedoms enjoyed by American journalists under Barack Obama. The French organization’s jubilation occurred even as American reporters lamented “the most aggressive” administration-led crackdown on the conduct of journalism since Richard Nixon. It’s enough to make any objective observer think that partisan sentiments may be tainting these ratings. If so, Trump wouldn’t be the only irresponsible steward of a crucial institution.