The United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday that U.S. President Donald Trump's frequent disparagement of reporters and news outlets threatens press freedom in the United States, and could incite violence against journalists.
"To call these news organizations 'fake' does tremendous damage, and to refer to individual journalists...is this not an incitement for others to attack journalists?"
—Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
"It's really quite amazing when you think that freedom of the press, not only sort of a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution but very much something that the United States defended over the years is now itself under attack from the president," said Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a news conference in Geneva.
Pointing to Trump's denouncements of CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, Zeid said: "To call these news organizations 'fake' does tremendous damage, and to refer to individual journalists in this way, I have to ask the question is this not an incitement for others to attack journalists?"
Zeid also criticized Trump's running commentary on women, Mexicans, and Muslims, as well as his decisions late last week to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals enlisting in the military, and to pardon former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of racially profiling Latinos in Arizona.
"I almost feel that the president is driving the bus of humanity, and we're careening down a mountain path," Zeid concluded, comparing the role of the U.S. president to that of a bus driver, "and in taking these measures, at least from a human rights perspective, it seems to be reckless driving."
Even before Trump took office, he had a contentious relationship with much of the news media, and began deploying the term "fake news" to refer to publications and networks that report any criticism or negative reactions to his policies and actions. In public addresses and online, the president often attacks the media outlets Zeid mentioned, as well as the three major broadcast news networks:
.@CNN is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS because their ratings are tanking since election and their credibility will soon be gone!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
In response to the growing animosity toward journalists, bolstered by Trump's never-ending "fake news" charges, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and several other groups partnered to develop a new website to track threats to press freedom in the United States, as Common Dreams previously reported.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker—which tracks physical attacks and arrests of reporters, equipment searches and seizures, prosecutions for legally sharing information (denounced as "leaks" by the Trump administration), and other threats to the free press—has documented at least 20 arrests and 16 assaults of U.S.-based journalists so far this year.
One such assault occurred in May, when U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte—then a Republican nominee in a special congressional race in Montana—body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who was trying to interview him on the eve of the election. Gianforte's campaign initially tried to blame Jacobs, but after Gianforte won, he publicly apologized and donated $50,000 to the CPJ, which invested the money into the press freedom tracker project.
And as the press freedom tracker shows, the attacks—physical and otherwise—continue. Shortly after the tracker launched, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a crackdown on government officials who disclose sensitive and classified information to the press, as well as news organizations that publish such disclosures. As Common Dreams reported, among reporters, press freedom groups, and civil libertarians, Sessions' declared "war on leaks" was seen as "a direct attack on the First Amendment."