In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak has used the country’s harsh colonial-era sedition laws to jail journalists and to shutter news sites critical of his government and exposing corruption involving a state investment fund, called 1MDB.
The military junta running Thailand has imposed draconian restrictions on the press, banning any criticism of the coup, shutting down cable and satellite television stations and radio outlets deemed too politicized, and routinely blocking out foreign news broadcast outlets and online sites. Almost all discussion of politics has been curtailed, and some journalists were ordered to report to the military for “attitude adjustment” sessions.
Here in Hong Kong, the space for a free and independent press appears to be shrinking, as a result of the creeping ideological control of the local media by mainland China, hostility and harassment aimed at journalists, and the chilling effect of the abductions of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015. The Hong Kong Journalists Association recently warned that the atmosphere for press freedom in the territory had reached an all-time low.
And what about China, where the foreign media has long felt under siege? What must they think hearing the American president echo their own belief, that, as Trump said, “The press is out of control, the level of dishonesty is out of control.”
When President Obama or past American leaders traveled to authoritarian countries, they routinely insisted that the White House press corps be given access, and that there be a joint press conference at the end of the visit. Dictators may not like it—they often squirm when facing questions from assembled reporters—but they always knew that was the price of having the U.S. president visit.
Cuban President Raul Castro did not like it and was visibly rattled last year when he had to answer a question from an American reporter about human rights during a press conference with Obama at his side.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was notably angered when he had to take a question from an American reporter during Obama’s November 2014 visit to Beijing, and Xi was asked about China’s practice of denying visas to U.S. correspondents. At the time, reporters from The Times, Bloomberg and Al Jazeera were being denied visas. Xi accused the journalists of violating unspecified Chinese laws and said, “The party that has caused the problem should be the one to help resolve it.”
Xi will have a better answer ready next time—if Trump even bothers to insist on a joint press conference whenever the two leaders finally meet face to face.
“The level of dishonesty of the American press is out of control,” he can say. “Your failing newspapers only report fake news. Bogus stories! You are the enemies of the people!” And the assembled press might be forgiven for wondering whether the translator is reciting Xi’s words—or Trump’s.
©Nieman Reports, 23 February 2017