Leahy Congressional Record Statement On Threats To Worldwide Press Freedom

Mr. President, we are all too familiar with President Trump’s “fake news” mantra, which he has repeatedly used to discredit unfavorable news reports and undermine the credibility of the media in our country.

This mantra, and the accompanying threats to freedoms of speech and of the press, have now spread far beyond our borders.  Autocrats and dictators around the world are enthusiastically using the concept of “fake news,” and the legitimacy granted to it by the President of the United States, to further undermine and restrict press freedom and fact-based reporting on corruption, human rights and other abuses in their own countries.

For example, in response to an Amnesty International report on thousands of military prison deaths in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad remarked, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”  Similarly, in response to news reports on persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority group in Myanmar, an officer in Myanmar’s Rakhine state security ministry stated, “There is no such thing as Rohingya.  It is fake news.”

The list goes on and includes comments from autocratic leaders in the Philippines, Venezuela, Russia, China, and Turkey, among others, who have used the “fake news” mantra to legitimize harassment, arrests, and prosecutions of journalists.

Last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual census of imprisoned journalists worldwide, which has hit an historical high of 262.  The total does not include the many more journalists who were imprisoned for a period of time during the year before being released prior to the December 1st census.  A CPJ statement published with the report noted that:

“Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and Chinese President Xi Jinping.  At the same time, President Donald Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, fixation on Islamic extremism, and insistence on labeling critical media ‘fake news’ serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists.”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution has inspired people around the world for over two hundred years.  It was reaffirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and versions of it have been included in the Constitutions of many countries.  Yet while the United States has long been a global leader for freedom of expression, the White House is now actively working to undermine press freedom.  President Trump’s reckless rhetoric has not only harmed our credibility and our reputation, it has emboldened foreign dictators who fear nothing more than for their misdeeds to be exposed by the media. The consequence is journalists threatened and imprisoned, journalists assassinated with impunity, publishers who are intimidated, and the ultimate casualty is the truth.

Press Contact

David Carle: 202-224-3693