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Trump's 'Strategic' Attacks on Media Threaten to Incite Violence, UN Human Rights Experts Say

"These attacks run counter to the country's obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law."

Then-candidate Donald Trump takes a question from Univision anchor Jorge Ramos on the campaign trail. Earlier in the press conference Trump had Ramos removed from the room when he failed to yield when Trump wanted to take a question from a different reporter. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The White House has shrugged off accusations that President Donald Trump is waging war on the news media—notably this week when press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to state that the press is not, as Trump has stated, "the enemy of the people."

But two international rights experts said Thursday that the president's repeated attacks on individual journalists as well as the media as a whole are part of a strategic plan to pit the American public against those tasked with reporting on the Trump administration—and to threaten the rights of reporters.

"His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts," said David Kaye and Edison Lanza, special rapporteurs on freedom of expression for the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, respectively.

"These attacks run counter to the country's obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law," the experts added in their joint statement. "We are especially concerned that these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence."

"Each time the president calls the media 'the enemy of the people' or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavored outlets, he suggests nefarious motivations or animus. But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations."              —David Kaye and Edison Lanza, U.N. rights expertsIn addition to urging his supporters to discount media reports about his presidency, Trump and his staffers have also taken steps to restrict press access. CNN journalist Kaitlan Collins was barred from attending a press event after asking Trump questions about his former lawyer Michael Collins and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and AFP correspondent Michael Beatty said this week that the White House is now requiring additional passes to attend press briefings.

The heightened concern from global officials also follows a number of troubling statements by the president and his staff in recent days—a wave of anti-press sentiment that's been part of Trump's general negative attitude toward the so-called "fake news" media outlets that have reported about his 2016 campaign and presidency.

Last Sunday, Trump unleashed on the news media via his Twitter account, calling journalists "unpatriotic" and the "enemy of the people." Two days later, he and his son Eric Trump applauded the harassment of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta by Trump supporters at a rally in Tampa, Florida, before moving on to an event in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where he declared reporters "only make up stories" and denounced negative reports about him as "fake, fake disgusting news." 

Trump's presidency has indeed been the subject of numerous negative reports about, among other issues, his forcible separation of families and administration's attempt to hold others including the Democrats and the ACLU responsible for the ensuing crisis; his failure to divest from his business and the resulting allegations that he is violating the Constitution's emoluments clause; his lies about the Republican tax law and the benefits it would hold for working families and his plan attempt to order even more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; and his campaign's alleged contacts with Russia, which intelligence agencies agree interfered in the 2016 election.

But Lanza and Kaye noted that reporting of the facts of Trump's presidency does constitute unfair bias against him.

"Each time the president calls the media 'the enemy of the people' or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavored outlets, he suggests nefarious motivations or animus. But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations," they said.

In order to keep discourse regarding the right of news outlets from deteriorating further—possibly risking the safety of journalists—Lanza and Kaye urged the Trump administration to unequivocally support the free press.

"We urge President Trump not only to stop using his platform to denigrate the media but to condemn these attacks, including threats directed at the press at his own rallies," they said. "The attack on the media goes beyond President Trump's language. We also urge his entire administration, including the Department of Justice, to avoid pursuing legal cases against journalists in an effort to identify confidential sources, an effort that undermines the independence of the media and the ability of the public to have access to information."

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