In Depth

Will Trump’s attacks on media lead to violence against journalists?

UN Human Rights Council says US president’s ‘vitriolic’ rhetoric is ‘designed to undermine confidence in reporting’

Most commentators agree that the office of US president has entered uncharted territory since Donald Trump took power, not least in terms of political rhetoric.

In contrast to the stately eloquence of previous US leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, the reigning president is arguably the first to have spawned his own catchphrase. “Fake News” has become a staple of Trump’s administration, characterising the populist sentiment that carried him into office.

The phrase is also part of a wider trend of controversial attacks on the press. Earlier this month, experts at the United Nations warned that the president’s “vitriolic” rhetoric “could result in violence against journalists”.

In a joint statement, David Kaye of the UN Human Rights Council and Edison Lanza of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said that Trump’s attacks “run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law”, and are “designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts”.

“Each time the president calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’, or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavoured outlets, he suggests nefarious motivations or animus. But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations,” they said.

The report was published days after CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta was “loudly heckled by supporters” of Trump at a presidential rally in Tampa Bay. The crowd shouted “CNN sucks”, “traitor” and “you're a liar”.

This is by no means the first time that Trump has been accused of inciting violence against journalists. In one widely reported incident, in mid-2017, the president tweeted a doctored video showing him “assaulting” a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his head - prompting universal condemnation.

CNN’s Dean Obeidallah said that public anger was effectively deflected by “Trump defenders saying this video was just a joke”.

But the Kenan Institute for Ethics, a think tank associated with North Carolina-based Duke University, claims Trump has committed more grave offences in a bid to incite violence against journalists that are not so easily swept under the rug.

“In addition to waging verbal warfare against the press, Trump has supported individuals perpetrating physical violence against the Fourth Estate, effectively endorsing encroachment on journalists’ human rights,” the institute says. “After now-US representative Greg Gianforte received a misdemeanour assault citation for body slamming The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs during his congressional campaign, Trump praised Gianforte’s election as a ‘great win’.

“Similarly, despite proclaiming at a 2015 rally that ‘I would never kill [journalists], but I do hate them,’ Trump laughed when Phillippine president Rodrigo Duterte - a man who has previously vowed to assassinate wayward reporters - referred to the press as ‘spies’.”

The Guardian reports that Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian prince and diplomat, is stepping down this month as UN high commissioner for human rights in the face of a waning commitment among world powers to fighting such abuses by governing administrations.

In an interview with the newspaper, Hussein noted Trump’s repeated designation of the press as “the enemy of the people”, and claimed that the president’s approach “harked back to a period not too long ago in the 20th century when feelings were stoked, directed at a vulnerable group for the sake of political gain”.

“We began to see a campaign against the media that could have potentially, and still can, set in motion a chain of events which could quite easily lead to harm being inflicted on journalists just going about their work, and potentially some self-censorship,” Hussein said. “And in that context, it’s getting very close to incitement to violence.”

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