U.S. President Donald Trump, in effort to erode public confidence in the mainstream media, has stepped up his attacks on the free press in manners and styles uncharacteristic of any leader of the free world in recent memory, by tweeting about “fake media” 141 times from January 10 to the end of October, according to The Washington Post.
Under the cloud of this shameful moment in US presidential history, journalists are being coerced to abandon their sacred duty of objective reporting in favor of normalizing lies, racism, and personality glamorization. You’ve got to fall in line to ingratiate yourself with the chief or risk being branded as a bunch of “fake news media” entities populated by “very dishonest people.” Whether it is his anger during a press conference or meeting with a foreign leader at home or abroad, the message remains consistent – “media organizations are fake and journalists are very bad people.”
That a sitting US president could be at war with the free press at this level and at his own choosing is mesmerizing, to say the least. This situation is so alarming that respected Arizona Senator John McCain recently warned that this sort of behavior is akin to “how dictatorship starts.”
Even Fox News, Trump’s favorite cable news network and an unlikely source of any criticism for him, is at odds with the President on this one. In a live interview earlier this year, Chris Wallace, an anchor at Fox News, confronted the President, accusing him of baselessly calling the free press the enemy of the people. “We fought with (President) Obama here and there, but he never said we were the enemy of the people.”
But Mr. Wallace appears to be even more determined to push back on the President’s assault on the media. Delivering a speech at the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC earlier in November, the Fox News anchor said “President Trump is engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on the free press in our history,” adding that the president “has done everything to de-legitimize the media, attacking us institutionally and individually.”
Mr. Wallace surmised that President Trump’s purpose for this concerted campaign is “to raise doubts over whether we can be trusted when we report critically about his administration.”
While the American free press is the main target at the frontline of this war, attention must be drawn to the devastating consequences it could have on the media in emerging but fragile democracies around the globe, particularly Africa.
Most African governments are viewed as corrupt and our leaders, most often than not, take on the posture of tyrants and dictators. There can be no bigger gift to a tyrant orchestrating his next media clampdown than hearing the President of the United States refer to the free press as “the enemy of the people.”
Before the inception of the Trump administration, African journalists had always counted on Washington to come to their aid when the going got tough. And through its various agencies responsible for press freedom, human rights, justice, among others, their cry was heard and supported.
Today, however, African journalists do not see a friend in the White House. They are now the ally of the fighting forces whose powerful “general” once scared away their enemy with a simple warning; just a simple warning! But that “general” has now turned the gun on his own men who are fighting for their own lives, leaving the African continent of the forces isolated with no arsenal.
Nonetheless, this situation as dire as it may be seen, shouldn’t be equated to the inescapable wall before an escapee. The African media should not be the subject of a permanent dependency syndrome, in the first place. The continent has a vast natural resource base capable of self sustenance without launching “Africa First” policy only to isolate the continent and deprive it of the human capital needed for modern development.
Consequently, we need our leaders to remove the continent from the claws of corruption, ineptitude, inefficiency, and bad governance. We need our leaders to exhibit a high level of fiscal discipline, political tolerance, and transparency. We need our leaders to promote press freedom and consider journalists as partners in democracy, not enemies who pursue scandals.
If our leaders cannot create the enabling environment for our development and prosperity in partnership with the media, who else can?
About the Author: James Seitua is a former Editor of the Daily Observer Newspaper in Liberia