I don’t recall the US midterm elections being first-page news in British and European newspapers before but, then again, the US has never had a president like Donald Trump. As a political science student some twenty years ago, I used to think my American government class was dull in comparison with the class in international politics, but if I were a student today, I would surely have to revise my perception.
There’s plenty to laugh about when it comes to Donald Trump; his fake tan, his rambling, incoherent speeches, his narcissistic belief in his own greatness, etc., and until yesterday I relished watching evening show hosts making fun of Trump. But if you think Donald Trump is nothing but a joke, take a look at the video recording showing him in an ill-tempered exchange with CNN chief White House correspondent Joe Acosta the day after the midterms. When Acosta challenged Trump on his characterisation of a caravan of migrants travelling towards the US from Central America as an ‘invasion,’ and refused to relinquish the microphone before Trump had given him an answer, the president lashed out, calling Acosta a ‘terrible person.’ Acosta was subsequently barred from re-entering the White House, having had his press pass confiscated. CNN later released a statement in support of Acosta:
This President’s ongoing attacks on the press have gone too far. They are not only dangerous, they are disturbingly un-American. While President Trump has made it clear he does not respect a free press, he has a sworn obligation to protect it. A free press is vital to democracy, and we stand behind Jim Acosta and his fellow journalists everywhere.
If anyone had any doubts about the threat that Trump’s presidency poses to democracy, this press conference offered a glimpse of what an angry, aggrieved Trump is capable of. At the same press conference, Trump accused PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, an African-American, of asking a racist question when she sought a response to suggestions that Trump’s nationalist rhetoric on the campaign trail emboldened white nationalists.
Alcindor’s question is particularly pertinent, given recently released footage of Cesar Sayoc, the man charged with sending pipe bombs to Trump critics, attending a Trump rally in Florida last year, in which Sayoc can be seen holding up a poster saying ‘CNN sucks’.
Press freedom is not just an issue in Trump’s America, however. Britain ranks 40 out of 180 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, a report compiled by the non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF). And it’s not a fluke; since 2013, Britain’s ranking has seen a continuous drop from 29. Motivating this abysmal ranking, RSF writes:
A continued heavy-handed approach towards the press (often in the name of national security) has resulted in the UK keeping its status as one of the worst-ranked Western European countries in the World Press Freedom Index.
The US fares even worse, ranking 45, which RSF explains thus:
US press freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the 1787 constitution, has been under increasing attack over the past few years, and the first year of President Donald J. Trump’s presidency has fostered further decline in journalists’ right to report. He has declared the press an “enemy of the American people” in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempted to block White House access to multiple media outlets, and routinely uses the term “fake news” in retaliation for critical reporting.
Just as press freedom is an integral part of a functioning democracy, so is freedom of speech, defined as the right to express one’s opinions without censorship or legal penalty. Freedom of speech is not absolute, however. Speech that represents an attack on a person, rather than an idea or belief, may not be protected under free speech. Hate speech is one example, inciting violence another. Unfortunately, the fine distinction between expressing one’s opinions and ideas on the one hand and using invectives and threats against another person on the other is lost on many people, especially on social media platforms like Twitter.
While I have yet to have my person attacked on Twitter, too many people I know have been at the receiving end of vicious attacks based not on their opinions, but on their appearance, gender, and sexual orientation.
I have, however, been told by a handful of people (sadly, some of them journalists), that their ‘democratic’ right to use dehumanising terminology such as ‘hare lip,’ about someone with a cleft lip trumped the right of a person with a cleft lip not to be dehumanised and humiliated. All in the name of free speech.
Surely, there is something seriously wrong with society when journalists are penalised for asking important, legitimate questions, and holding our political leaders to account, while Twitter trolls are free to bully anyone they like, simply for their gender or for the way they look.
For too long we’ve taken democracy and rights of free speech for granted; I don’t want to be thought of as fear-mongering, but I do believe that in order to protect our democracy and our rights, we need to clarify what, exactly, democracy is (and is not), and what those rights encompass.