For the first time in history, the Iranian state broadcaster livestreamed the entire 90-minute US presidential debate on Sunday. This was not meant to be a civics lesson. Rather, it was an effort to highlight the dysfunctionality of the American political system to the Iranian public.
That decision shows the ways in which—win or lose—the Trump campaign has eroded US standing around the world, particularly when it comes to such issues as human rights and press freedom. This may seem incidental compared with the enormous threat a Trump presidency poses to US institutions from the political parties, to the Justice Department, and the media itself. But for vulnerable journalists around the world, it’s a game changer. As CPJ Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe noted in a statement released this week, “A Trump presidency would represent a threat to press freedom in the United States, but the consequences for the rights of journalists around the world could be far more serious.”
"Trump has consistently trampled on America’s First Amendment tradition."
The US record is far from perfect. But when America stands up for persecuted journalists around the world, it can still make an enormous difference. Recent US efforts have helped free imprisoned bloggers in Vietnam and Ethiopia, and led to the release of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter jailed in Iran. The US has been a consistent voice for press freedom and internet rights in international forums like the United Nations, providing a critical counterweight to countries like China and Russia, which seek to restrict online speech.
When it comes to press freedom and the rights of journalists around the world, the US exercises its influence in two ways. The first is by example. But Trump has consistently trampled on America’s First Amendment tradition. Throughout his campaign, Trump has insulted and vilified the press and called individual journalists dishonest and sleazy. He has refused to condemn attacks carried out by his supporters. He has systematically denied press credentials to outlets who have covered him critically, including the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Univision and the Des Moines Register. In his latest outburst, Trump threatened to sue The New York Times after it published accounts from two women who said he groped them.
Trump has routinely made vague proposals to curtail press and internet freedom, declaring that—if elected president—he would “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” As president, Trump would not have Constitutional authority to change US libel laws. But he clearly intends to make trouble for the media and would doubtless find a way to do so.
The second way in which the US exercises influence is by speaking out when the rights of journalists are violated around the world. Trump has indicated he has no inclination to do so. When MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked him in December if his admiration of Vladimir Putin was at all tempered by Russia’s recent history of journalist murders, Trump responded: “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country… Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.”
One of the ways that press freedom groups like CPJ conduct their advocacy is by goading the US government to exercise its influence appropriately, highlighting the most serious press freedom violations around the world and calling on the US to take action. There have been challenges during the Obama administration, because as noted in CPJ’s 2013 report “The Obama Administration and the Press,” the US record has been fraught, and includes the aggressive prosecution of leakers and a lack of transparency. Based on the way Hillary Clinton has managed media coverage during her campaign, these kinds of issues would continue and could even grow worse under her presidency.
"If Trump were to be elected president, he would likely become America’s first democratator."
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has defended press freedom, albeit selectively, speaking out about the rights of journalists in places like Vietnam, Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and at times Turkey, where Vice President Biden met with the wife of then imprisoned journalist Can Dundar during a visit in January (the US record in China and Egypt is less compelling). The US has a consistently strong record of defending free speech values in international fora, notably the International Telecommunication Union, a relatively obscure UN agency which China would like to use to control the global internet. Under a Trump presidency, this critical influence would vanish.
In many countries around the world—from Russia to Turkey—elected autocrats pose a tremendous challenge to press freedom. I call these leaders democratators because they have used the authority gained at the ballot box to undermine and weaken the institutions that constrain their power, including the press. If Trump were to be elected president, he would likely become America’s first democratator. Though he now appears likely to lose, the Trump campaign has already had a negative influence—as anyone who watched debate night from Tehran already knows.