Supporters of President Donald Trump will doubtless believe his side of the story about what happened when he met earlier this month with New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger and Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet. But whether it was a chance for them to discuss “fake news” by the “failing New York Times” or, as Mr. Sulzberger contends, a venue for the paper to raise concerns about the president’s attack on journalism more broadly, one point the Times publisher made on Sunday is beyond dispute. When the supposed leader of the free world routinely labels journalists as “enemies of the people,” it provides license for despots, dictators and purveyors of mob rule throughout the world to persecute the press as a means to silence critics and evade accountability.
In 2016, when Mr. Trump was campaigning for the presidency, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte proclaimed that “Just because you're a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch.” Last year, after President Trump and Mr. Duterte met in Manila, reporters asked whether Mr. Trump had raised concerns about human rights abuses in the nation. Mr. Duterte shut down the questioning and called reporters “spies.” Mr. Trump laughed. The Philippines is the 5th most dangerous country in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Nearly 80 have been killed there since 1992, including at least four since Mr. Duterte took power.
When they met one-on-one for the first time in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin leaned in toward President Trump, gestured to the reporters in the room and said, “These are the ones who are hurting you?” Mr. Trump replied, “These are the ones. You’re right about that.” On July 15 of this year, just before his summit with Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump tweeted that “Much of the news media is indeed the enemy of the people.” Just before the joint news conference Messrs. Putin and Trump held in Helsinki, a journalist credentialed by The Nation magazine, who was holding a piece of paper with the words “Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty,” was forcibly removed from the room. A few days after the widely criticized Helsinki news conference, Mr. Trump tweeted that “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”
According to Politifact, 38 journalists have been killed in work-related homicides in Russia since Mr. Putin gained power in 2000. And that likely underestimates the Putin regime’s brutality against journalists. A reporter who wrote critically about Mr. Putin was murdered in Ukraine less than two months before his summit with Mr. Trump.
Turkey has for years been considered the worst offender for jailing journalists; the Stockholm Center for Freedom currently lists 61 Turkish journalists convicted, 179 arrested and 144 wanted by authorities. Last year, the man widely viewed as the architect of this oppression, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pushed through a constitutional referendum to vastly increase his own power and diminish the already weak independence of the judiciary — a move that will make it even easier for him to jail his critics in the press. And what did President Trump do? Before the ink was even dry on the fraudulent ballots, Mr. Trump called to congratulate him.
Mr. Erdogan was in attendance at the NATO meeting this summer when Mr. Trump repeatedly bashed the “fake news” media at public events. So was Polish President Andrzej Duda who tweeted out his thanks to President Trump for his anti-press rhetoric. That wasn’t surprising; Mr. Duda and Mr. Trump had tweeted about fighting “fake news” together after a previous meeting. The rhetoric must be validating to Mr. Duda, whose government has used “legislative, political, and economic means to stifle the media” as part of a “broader push to weaken checks and balances and silence independent voices,” according to a 2017 Freedom House report.
This spring, Malaysia went so far as to pass a “fake news” law, allowing the government to punish those who publish or circulate inaccurate or misleading information with up to six years in prison. Who decides what’s true and what’s fake? The country’s scandal-plagued government. “When the American president made ‘fake news’ into a buzzword, the world woke up,” a senior Malaysian government official told The Times. A Danish national has already been imprisoned under the law for a video he posted criticizing police for what he claimed was a slow response to the shooting of a Palestinian lecturer. Egypt followed with a stepped-up anti-fake news law that allows the government to shut down any social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers and to imprison those behind them for what it deems to be “false news.” According to The Guardian, at least eight Egyptian bloggers and journalists have been arrested in the past few months amid accusations of “fake news.” In Vietnam this month, the communist government shut down a news website over an instance of what it called fake news.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban’s government hasn’t merely stopped at shutting down critical news organizations, it has gotten into the fake news business itself. It has turned once independent outlets into state media that criticizes Mr. Orban’s enemies (principally, the financier George Soros) and supports his policies. Mr. Trump called to congratulate him on his election, too. Czech President Milos Zeman has joked with Mr. Putin about the need to “liquidate” reporters and once appeared at a news conference with a replica AK-47 inscribed with the words “for journalists” on the stock. President Trump invited him to the White House.
We could go on. According to an April report in the Index on Censorship, leaders of at least 20 nations across the globe have echoed Mr. Trump’s cries about “fake news” in the last year as a means to “justify the closure of critical news outlets, to imprison reporters, to censor content and to block public access to the Internet and social media sites.”
Crying “fake news” is a convenient way for President Trump to dismiss criticism. Throwing around the Stalinist accusation that journalists are “enemies of the people” is a terrific way to rile up his base. But President Trump’s blanket condemnation of journalists also provides cover to those who would weaken democracy in nation after nation. The president’s attacks on the Times and the Washington Post and CNN don’t hurt them any. (The Times, in particular, is doing just fine.) But it’s no exaggeration to say they do diminish the hope of freedom and liberty for billions of people across the globe.