Here’s how Biden can restore America’s leadership on press freedom
During his four years in office, President Trump has made attacks on the media a hallmark of his administration. He called journalists fake news and enemies of the people, but also scum, liars and bad people. He continues to blame the media for his election defeat, accusing reporters of unfairly covering his administration and also of calling the election in favor of Biden.
Trump’s attacks have undermined public trust and damaged American democracy, a particularly troubling legacy in the midst of a pandemic, when the necessary sacrifices Americans will have to make in the weeks to come hinge on agreement on some key facts.
But as damaging as Trump’s rhetoric has been in a domestic context, it has been far more damaging to journalists around the world. Tyrants and autocrats have appropriated Trump’s words, denouncing critical journalists and passing new laws criminalizing the publication of fake news. Press conferences featuring Trump and repressive leaders gleefully calling journalists “fake” have become a trope.
In the four years of the Trump administration, CPJ has documented a record number of journalists in jail around the world and an increase in the number of people jailed for publishing “fake news.” The Trump administration also participated in the Saudi regime’s cover-up of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, protecting Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and blocking congressional efforts to hold him accountable for his alleged role in the murder.
Reversing this aspect of Trump’s record will not be an easy task for the incoming Biden administration, especially given the competing priorities. But much is at stake. Defending press freedom and defending the rights of journalists around the world is more than a matter of principle, although it certainly is. It is also a matter of self-interest, as the United States benefits from the free flow of information within countries and across borders.
Could the COVID-19 outbreak have been contained if Chinese journalists had been able to report freely on the initial outbreak? Could we develop a more effective global response if we had better data from Egypt, Russia, Brazil and Iran, all of which suppress information about the scale of the pandemic? Haven’t American companies and investors long profited from the reports on China of the unbridled press of Hong Kong, increasingly pressured by Beijing? Wouldn’t it be helpful for US policymakers and the public to have better access to independent information about political mobilizations in Belarus, Nigeria and Thailand? Or to understand what is happening on the ground in northern Ethiopia, where an internal military conflict that has already crossed the border coincides with a widespread crackdown on the press?
In order to support journalists working in any of these contexts, the Biden administration must do two things. First, he must improve the press freedom environment in his country. Everyone expects Biden to be more respectful of journalists, but the task is far greater. CPJ has been highly critical of the Obama administration’s record and the Biden administration needs to do better. It must be truly open and transparent; it should protect whistleblowers; it should work to support local and regional media; and he should support efforts to fight online misinformation, which is no easy task.
The Biden administration must also make protecting press freedom an explicit focus of its foreign policy. President Biden is expected to make a major speech on the importance of press freedom and underscore his commitment. The Biden administration should also appoint a special presidential envoy for press freedom to represent the administration at a high level wherever journalists are threatened. The special envoy should be appointed once, not renewable, and should not serve more than two years, during which time the State Department should rebuild and strengthen the structures that have traditionally supported press freedom and journalists. in the world.
CPJ believes the Biden administration can restore America’s leadership on press freedom, and in consultation with nearly 40 experts in journalism, law, and the foundation community, we’ve crafted a white paper that outlines the path to be continued. We hope it provides a roadmap for how the United States can shoulder the crucial responsibility of standing firmly with those who report the truth — not those who seek to suppress it.