Donald Trump’s disdain for the news media is nothing new, but since leaving office he has escalated his threats to journalists. In his latest broadside against the free press, Trump called for jailing the reporter at Politico who broke the news of a leaked Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v Wade.
“So, go to the reporter & ask him/her who it was. If not given the answer, put whoever in jail until the answer is given,” he posted to his social media site, Truth Social, on January 19th. “You might add the publisher and editor to the list.”
This push to jail journalists for doing their jobs — their Constitutionally protected jobs — echoes a speech Trump gave last November, during which he mused about the same reporter being sexually assaulted in jail: “The reporter goes to jail. When the reporter learns he’s going to be married to a certain prisoner that’s extremely strong, tough, and mean, he will say, ‘You know, I think I’m going to give you the information.’”
This isn’t mere idle talk. According to the New York Times, while president, Trump told FBI Director James Comey “to consider putting reporters in prison” during an Oval Office meeting. More recently, Rolling Stone reported that Trump gathered advisors to discuss ways around the First Amendment in order to emulate authoritarian leaders’ crackdowns on journalists.
It is difficult to overstate the danger to democracy these ideas pose. Trump oversaw a steady decline in press freedom during his term in office, during which a record number of reporters were arrested and 856 other aggressions against journalists were recorded. His presidency culminated in the deadly attack on the Capitol, where rioters damaged tens of thousands of dollars worth of AP equipment, smashed cameras while yelling “CNN sucks,” and scrawled “Murder the Media” on the Capitol itself.
This is all happening against the backdrop of a global deterioration in journalist safety. According to RSF’s data, last year saw an 18.8% increase in the number of journalists killed in the practice of their profession, with 535 journalists detained around the world – the largest number on record.
At a time when it matters more than ever for democracies such as the US to lead by example, Trump’s words and actions send the signal that the values of free expression don’t matter. Would-be strongmen around the world — from former Philippines president Duterte to recently ousted Bolsanaro in Brazil — have taken their cues from Trump.
So what can we do? The United States lacks a federal press shield law to protect the privacy of journalists and their sources from overzealous law enforcement. One such effort, the PRESS Act, narrowly failed to become law at the end of 2022. Every effort should be made to pass it in 2023.
But just as important as legislative fixes is a culture shift. Trump’s outrageous public pronouncements have become commonplace, but we cannot become inured to authoritarian attacks on our most essential liberties. Taking the freedom of the press for granted is a sure way to lose it.
Clayton Weimers is the Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders’ Washington Bureau