OPINION: ‘Fake news’: The new favorite words of worldwide dictators

President Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Russian leader Vladimir Putin
Graphic by Daphne Yang

A few weeks ago, news broke that the Press Freedom Index now considers the U.S. to be a “problematic” place for journalists because of an “intense climate of fear.”  

The U.S. now occupies 48th place in their rankings. Only 15 countries are considered to provide a “good situation” for journalists.

Just in the last year, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who frequently criticized the Saudi Arabian government, was assassinated in a Saudi consulate, two Pulitzer-prize winning journalists were unjustly imprisoned in Myanmar and authoritarian leaders around the world have touted laws suppressing so-called “fake news.”

It’s not hard to determine where much of this rhetoric originates. Open Twitter and go to our president’s account.

As of this January, President Donald Trump has tweeted insults at individual journalists 48 times, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. These journalists often then receive threatening messages.

More broadly, Trump has cited the words “fake news” or “fake media” in his tweets 431 times since his inauguration as of May 1, and he’s been further ramping up the rhetoric ever since the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report last month.

Words have ramifications, especially if they’re the words of a public figure.

Even though the U.S. (thankfully) has the First Amendment and a judicial branch to prevent outright censorship of the press, other countries aren’t so lucky.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has faced international condemnation for the thousands of extra-judicial killings that have taken place in his crackdown on drug use.

Filipinos, though, have little chance of hearing these condemnations. An ally of Duterte has labeled the situation as a set of “alternative facts,” echoing the exact words of White House aide Kellyanne Conway.

Those who try to report the truth in the Philippines often face threats of violence.

The situation isn’t much different elsewhere. Just last week, the Supreme Court of Myanmar upheld the seven-year sentences of two Reuters journalists for reporting on the killings of 10 Rohingya Muslims.

The Myanmar government had also launched misinformation campaigns on social media to spread hatred towards the Rohingya population, leading to their genocide and forced migration.

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The government labeled reports on the situation “fake news.”

But perhaps even more alarming than what’s happening around the world is what will transpire in the coming years.

“Fake news” laws have been popping up recently from Egypt to Singapore to Belarus to Russia. The lasting effects of these laws will be felt by journalists for years to come.

Rather than repudiate these developments around the world, Trump has welcomed them. In fact, Trump announced at a press conference that he was “very proud to hear the president [of Brazil] use the term ‘fake news.’”

In the wake of the Polish president’s attempts to tighten his control of the press in 2017, Trump retweeted one of his tweets, adding that “We will fight the #FakeNews with you!”

After news broke of the vicious execution of Khashoggi, American intelligence sources concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the operation.

Trump ignored it. He sided with bin Salman. World leaders took note.

Not only has Trump’s rhetoric repeatedly attacked the integrity of acclaimed journalists here in the U.S., it’s given authoritarian governments around the world a perfect framework to curtail a free and independent press.

We must resist this new normal that’s taken hold over the last few years. Rather than laugh every time Trump makes an absurd accusation about a reporter, we must remember what those words mean.

Christopher Murdy PO ’22 is an intended international relations major from Lido Beach, New York. Agree? Disagree? Email him at christopher.murdy@pomona.edu.

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