Malaysia Shows How Trump Is Making Journalism a More Dangerous Profession Across the Globe
When President Donald Trump turned the words "fake news" into an attack on the free press, authoritarians across the world were emboldened by his rejection of democratic norms. As a result, journalists around the world face real dangers from repressive regimes.
The latest example comes from Malaysia, where the government is on the verge of enacting a law that supposedly criminalizes publication of "fake news," which could land journalists in jail for up to six years and liable for fines up to $130,000. The Malaysian government will get to decide what is and isn't "fake news" and who should go to jail for writing it.
India's president Narendra Modi proposed a similar idea, but quickly withdrew the proposal this week after a backlash.
These moves are at least partially encouraged by Trump. He frequently attacks news stories he doesn't like by calling them fake, regardless of their accuracy. The White House repeatedly denied reports that the president was considering firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster right before both were promptly ousted.
During the campaign, Trump suggested "opening up libel laws" to go after the press, though he hasn't made any moves in that direction while in office.
"When the president calls every piece of information he does not like 'fake news,' he also encourages politicians in other countries who are not constrained by constitutional free speech protections or independent judiciaries to more aggressively squelch the press," the New York Times editorial board noted. "They know that there will be little international condemnation of their actions because one of the most important standard bearers for a free press—the American government—is led by a man trying to discredit the free press."
At no time was this more clear than when Trump complained about alleged "fake news" while at a press conference with Polish president Andrzej Duda, who had already begun reining in the free press in his own country.
These attacks are a reminder that, in many ways, Trump has less in common with his predecessors of both parties, who always praised democratic norms, than he does with strongmen dictators overseas.