Edward Fitzpatrick, RWU director of media and public relations, a New England First Amendment Coalition and Common Cause Rhode Island board member, and a former Providence Journal columnist:
President Trump has heaped scorn on the leaders of long-time U.S. allies such as Canada – calling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.”
And he has heaped praise on the leaders of long-time adversaries such as Russia – calling President Vladimir Putin “very, very strong” after a particularly obsequious performance alongside Putin at a July 16 news conference in Helsinki.
Since then, the news cycle has moved on, and Trump has resumed his now-routine anti-press rants – at one point getting people at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention to boo and hiss at reporters, saying, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.”
But before the next ALL-CAPS Twitter tirade, let’s pause to consider how our president’s new autocratic Russian buddy treats the press – and to recall that the United States has long served as a model for democracy, a beacon of press freedom.
Freedom House, a U.S.-based think tank dedicated to expanding freedom and democracy around the globe, produces an annual report assessing the degree of print, broadcast and digital media freedom in 199 countries and territories. The most recent report, for 2017, gives Norway the highest press freedom score and North Korea the lowest score. Canada ranks 20th while the United States ranks 37th. Russia trails in 176th – behind Iraq, Turkey and Libya.
Violence against journalists is common in Russia, the Freedom House report says. “There were widespread reports of attacks, arrests and threats against both professional journalists and social media users.”
Television has become the leading source of news in Russia, but it “often functions as a propaganda tool for the government,” the report says. Media outlets are expected to conform to official narratives on Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military intervention in Syria, “and the dissemination of critical views on those topics can result in website blocking or prison sentences,” it says.
Roger Williams University Professor of International Relations Mark Sawoski, who studies Russia, said that one of the main ways Putin consolidated power after 1999 was to get rid of independent TV outlets. “Russians watch a lot of TV,” he said. “Most watch one of the three national networks. They are all now operated either directly by the government or by Gazprom, the giant energy company controlled by the government. The same is now true of various local stations.”
Russia has some independent newspapers, but “in cases when they get on the nerves of the central government, the government can be very intimidating, and several print journalists have been killed under Putin’s rule,” Sawoski said.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump defended Putin against suspicions that he kills journalists. “If he has killed reporters, I think that’s terrible,” Trump said on ABC News. “But this isn’t like somebody that’s stood with a gun and he’s taken the blame or he’s admitted that he’s killed. He’s always denied it.”
PunditFact analyzed whether Putin kills journalists, and the fact-checkers found that at least 34 journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000. By comparison, three journalists were killed in the United States and two were killed in China during that time.
PunditFact quoted Nina Ognianova, coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Europe and Central Asia program, as saying journalists who cover corruption, human rights abuses, organized crime and official wrongdoing can be “slain with impunity in Putin’s Russia.” While there’s no evidence linking Putin to the murders, he’s “surely lowered the cost,” she said. “Their killers are emboldened to act by an administration that marginalizes them, isolates them and downplays their role in society.”
The most high-profile murder of a Russian journalist came in 2006 when investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, of the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was shot point-blank as she arrived home from grocery shopping. “In seven years covering the second Chechen war, Politkovskaya’s reporting repeatedly drew the wrath of Russian authorities,” the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote. “She was threatened, jailed, forced into exile and poisoned during her career.”
A Moscow court sentenced five men to prison for her murder, but the question of who ordered the contract killing remains unresolved.
Arch Puddington, Freedom House’s distinguished scholar for democracy studies, said Putin has directed propaganda campaigns both within Russia and directed at other countries – especially at bordering nations but also at the United States. “He wants to encourage an environment in which there’s no such thing as demonstrable truth, everything is open to question, everyone has their own version of the truth,” he said.
The concern, Puddington said, “is that President Trump has embraced this message himself, so his strategy is to question everything the press has to say if he doesn’t agree with it, to say it’s false and unfair.” While many U.S. presidents have complained about the press, he said, “Never has a president of the United States questioned the legitimacy of the American media, and now we have a president that is doing this. That’s in keeping with Putin’s own message that it’s just a struggle for competing narratives – there’s no reason to believe anything the press says.”
Many people think democracy is all about elections, RWU’s Sawoski said, but it’s even more so about the checks and balances on executive power provided by key institutions such as legislatures, the courts – and the press. “Russia is no model for democratic countries,” he said. “Rather, Russia is a model for how to destroy nascent democracies and establish authoritarian governments.”