By Alex Roberts
US ‘exceptionalism’ has always been a falsehood; and that’s being proven now more than ever. Something has shifted in American politics and the discourse surrounding the media. Everything is centered around one five- letter word, emblazoned in bold neon lights: ‘Trump’. These actions from the White House, in its unrelenting admonishment of the media, might be unprecedented for modern American politics, but not for much of the world emerging into development — the nations eschewing totalitarianism, imperialism, colonialism and its neo-colonial descendants.
That’s one thing that I’ve seen up close: the gap between Trump bashing the media and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda admonishing the press (as he did earlier this year) is narrowing. The small (and growing smaller) difference is that Museveni will flex his muscle. With the Trump administration’s constant tearing down of journalists, other bullies will follow a more totalitarian banner. Anyone who has lived in an oligarchic psuedo-democracy such as Kenya will be quick to tell the US if they’re willing to listen. A leader who attacks the press will always shape the narrative around himself. All issues are satellites; and he is the sun they revolve around. Look at the front pages of a Kenyan newspaper since independence, and you’ll have to scour for headlines that are not about the goings on of the political leadership.
Trump’s negative influence on the state of global press safety is becoming more and more undeniable. The state of affairs for the press is worsening: it seems to be happening as an over-dramatized film whose ending we all know. One needs to look no further than the recent deadly shooting of protesters who were throwing rocks at the Nigerian military to see an exemplary example of such influence. The demonstrators, Shiite activists, had blocked off traffic access to streets in the capital Abuja and engaged soldiers, hurling projectiles and stones. They were fired upon with live rounds. The military estimate of three deaths was contradicted by human rights groups like Amnesty International, which contend that the number is much higher. The shooting of civilians isn’t the only element of the story that grabs one’s attention; it’s the fact that, in response to criticism, the Nigerian military, in a tweet that has since been taken down, took cover in Trump’s insistence that American troops had every right to fire at migrants who throw rocks.
Could this be viewed merely as an excuse, an effort on the part of the Nigerian military to scapegoat? Possible, but the real culprit at the core of the issue is that of enablement, the shifting of lines and moral authority that Trump helps to blur.
As the leader of “the most powerful nation on earth”, Trump has the daily ear of billions. His ability to set norms is thus unrivaled. His words carry to far-off shores. When he calls the media the “enemy of the people” you’d better believe that there are people nodding and taking notes.
I’ve seen totalitarian states do the same, and this attacking of the media will always have a darkly subversive effect; and the effects of such attacks on the press can linger for decades. Many in the United States manage to roll their eyes to this danger, doubting Trump’s sway over the masses, but those people also forget just how much of the US public (nearly 63 million voters) cast their ballot for the Donald J. Trump. I saw it happen — his sway over the public up close, in my home ‘swing’ state of Wisconsin. The Republican candidate won by only 27,000 votes, after multiple visits to the state and continuous hammering of the media during his rallies there.
Trump, as others with other leaders of similar ilk, is an enabler, a gateway drug, a beckoning finger. Like many modern US presidents, Trump is a one-man reality distortion field. But unlike his predecessors, Trump is using the unique powers of his office to blithely encourage the worst instincts among the powerful.
Or as Kathleen Carroll, the board chair, Committee to Protect Journalist, put it: “The world is pretty scary right now… The forces of press repression seem to be getting louder and more powerful by the minute.”
There had been indications of Trumpism bubbling: polarization of the US politics to an extent I could barely recognize as discourse, Brexit and the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Since Trump’s election in 2016, these and other figures are only growing bolder, more outspoken against the press and are all the quicker to crack down on journalists. Such was the case last week in John Magafuli’s Tanzania, when two journalists, Angela Quintal and Muthoki Mumo, both high ranking representatives from of the Committee to Protect Journalists, were detained in Dar es Salaam without cause. They were released several hours later after intense and unexplained interrogation.
Quintal, in her write-up of the Tanzanian ordeal, foreshadowed the harrowing experience that was to follow by noting that, “US President Donald Trump was berating CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta on cable news when I heard a knock on my hotel room door.”
The detaining of foreign members of the press in democratic societies is an often ominous sign of curtailing a free press; assassinated Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi would have said as much.
Someone once told me, ‘All dictators love elections’. It’s been hard not to find similarities between the US midterm elections (and the subsequent recount efforts) and the 2017 presidential election in Kenya. Both have had questionable variables, voting discrepancies and leadership that has openly antagonized the press. In each case, the job of the media regarding the coverage of the elections has been on the receiving end of heavily antagonistic administrations. The shutting down of Kenyan television stations came in early 2018; after months of the White House openly criticizing the US and international media. In the Kenyan situation, did Trump personally act for the Kenyan government and shut down the media? No, but he had spent the previous two years openly toeing the red line of press freedom on the grandest of public political stages. He had set the stage for others to take the spotlight with a Trump-tinted lens.
Perhaps the most pressing of conundrums is this: if the media continues to be attacked and those who oppose freedom to of information are continuously emboldened, will US press freedoms be at risk of deteriorating, and how much further? What are the implications for journalists in the developing world, especially in those nations which that have governments and militaries who that view Trump’s actions as a roadmap to be followed?
The state of the media, both local and international, like democracy, is not binary. There are not two sole options — Pol Pot crackdowns on intellectual discourse versus a Norwegian 21st st century media sanctuary. Indeed, there are levels to the freedoms of the press; rights to information and free media can erode and be gone, sliding over the course of months, not with an overnight scream but the long whimper of a slow death. Many of us in the press have been witness to such phenomena all too personally. American exceptionalism isn’t real; the most powerful nation on earth can go down a rabbit hole as others have and are currently circling again. It’s time for the US to listen to other nations regarding press freedom, because many have been through what Trump is currently helping to revive.