World View: Donald Trump poses serious threat to press and free speech

Republican frontrunner has made it clear he will curb media freedom if elected

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has indicated he would move to curb media freedom if elected. Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/EPA

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has indicated he would move to curb media freedom if elected. Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/EPA

 

‘Under the provisions of the Libel Act of 2017,” the New Yorker suggests helpfully, “President Trump’s name can be used in the following sentences”:

Donald Trump has good ideas!”

“I agree with President Donald Trump.”

“Donald Trump knows money. He’s great with money, the best. His house is gold. I’m off to write Donald Trump a nice letter.”

“Another excellent speech by President Donald Trump!”

“I disagree with Donald Trump. Just kidding. Sorry, bad joke.”

“The flag looks better with President Trump’s changes.”

Donald Trump doesn’t like the press, particularly their questions about him, and made it clear last week that President Trump would do something about us, the First Amendment notwithstanding.

He’s in good company – Turkey, Myanmar, Thailand, not to mention most of South America, China and North Korea, all share the view that disparaging remarks about the leader merit sanctions, often severe.

If elected, Trump says, he would “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue the media.

The change was necessary to fight what he described as the “dishonesty” of major American newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

“I’m going to open up our libel law so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money . . . We’re going to have people sue like you’ve never been sued before.”

And “The press is amazingly dishonest. The press is a real problem in this country.”

For journalists covering his campaign, life is already distinctly uncomfortable. He fences off the press at his rallies and invites the audience to boo them, which they do enthusiastically.

He recently joked about killing journalists and the crowd applauded.

Autocratic identification

A report this week paints a bleak picture on press freedom in South and Central America.

A study from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Thomson Reuters Foundation finds that, despite the fact criminal defamation laws violate international freedom of expression standards, only Jamaica has entirely repealed laws that would permit journalists to be prosecuted for their reporting.

Two-thirds of the countries in North, Central and South America routinely use such laws to silence dissent and keep information from their citizens, the report said.

Offences include defamation, libel, calumny, or making false charges, and “desacato” offences which refer to insulting or offending the state or state official.

But perhaps nowhere does the civil use of lèse majesté -type laws, still used widely to “protect” the king in Thailand, get more use than in Turkey where, since August 2014 when Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed the presidency, 1,845 criminal cases have been opened against Turks for insulting the president, a crime that carries a penalty of up to four years in prison.

Protest as crime

The most common protest chant that has been subject to prosecution is: “Thief! Murderer! Erdogan!”

Setting the bar low, justice minister Bekir Bozdag insists “nobody should have the freedom to swear”.

The result has mostly been suspended sentences but many have faced pretrial detention.

Dozens of journalists have lost their jobs because of coverage considered critical of the government which closed 96,000 websites last year.

Perhaps the strangest defamation case currently under way, however, is in Myanmar and also relates to political muzzling.

It involves 24-year-old poet Maung Saungkha who was charged recently after publishing a poem on his Facebook page that suggested he had a portrait of President Thein Sein on his penis.

Whether he has in fact illustrated his penis is not clear, and Saungkha may have to expose himself in the course of the trial to establish the truth.

But he is one of several who have fallen foul of a law that prohibits online defamation of the army or the president on Facebook.

(In Thailand you can get into trouble for “liking” a post that is defamatory of the king.)

Saungkha, an interfaith democracy activist, and a member of a youth group connected to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party wonders what the country’s new much-vaunted press freedom means if he can be charged with such an offence.

And quite how a poem about a picture of a president on a penis constitutes defamation is bewildering. Trump would understand.

What was that we said about his hair? Sorry, President Trump.

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