A free press is critical to keeping America’s democracy accountable and strong. Unfortunately, the U.S. is no longer a press-freedom beacon, and in fact it fell two places this year to rank 45th out of 180 countries measured in the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
This election season gives voters a chance to do something about that decline. They can embrace a campaign from Reporters Without Borders, #DefendPressFreedom, that urges citizens to demand that candidates take a stand. How? By writing letters, making phone calls, engaging candidates on social media and participating in candidate forums.
“The freedom of the press is the freedom that allows us to verify that all other freedoms are respected,” Margaux Ewen, Reporters Without Borders’ North America director, told an editorial writer. “We really hope to engage voters in the upcoming midterm elections, encouraging them to pick up press freedom as an important issue with whoever is running as a candidate for Congress.”
The organization truly means “whoever is running” — the #DefendPressFreedom campaign is meant to be bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans should respond to essential questions about the link between freedom of the press and democracy.
But it cannot be overlooked that the reason the question needs to be asked at all is that President Donald Trump has unleashed an unprecedented attack on news media outlets, going so far as to label them “the enemy of the American people.” The Stalin-era phrase “enemy of the people” was nixed by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who said it “was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating” those who disagreed with the supreme leader.
Some Republicans in Congress are complicit in Trump’s slurs by remaining silent, or appearing on stage with Trump as he irresponsibly whips rowdy rally crowds into taunting and even threatening journalists. Rather than protecting press freedom at home and projecting it abroad, this month Trump lauded Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, who as a candidate in 2017 assaulted a Guardian reporter. “I’ll tell you what: This man has fought — in more ways than one — for your state,” Trump bellowed to the delight of the Billings crowd.
Some Minnesotans are seemingly taken with such unpresidential, un-American rhetoric: Fully 29 percent of Minnesotans, including 68 percent of Republicans, believe that the news media is the enemy of the people, according to a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll released this week. Such language is dangerous, as evidenced by the rising number of physical attacks and threats experienced by journalists.
Congressional candidates can use their platforms to speak out against Trump’s attacks, and to speak up for press freedom. Reporters Without Borders deserves praise for launching its campaign. It’s a shame that it’s necessary in a nation whose founders considered freedom of the press to be essential.