White House Rejects US Press Freedom Downgrade
VOA News/Steve Herman
WHITE HOUSE — The White House is rejecting accusations President Donald Trump and his administration are hampering freedom of the press in the United States.
A media watchdog and advocacy group has dropped the United States two places to 45th in its annual press freedom rankings, blaming Trump’s repeated verbal attacks on reporters, publications and TV news networks.
“I think we’re one of the most accessible administrations that we’ve seen in decades,” replied White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at Wednesday’s briefing just hours after the release of the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
“I think by my mere presence of standing up here and taking your questions unvetted is a pretty good example of freedom of the press and I think it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise,” Sanders said, responding to a question from VOA.
The response did not satisfy the chief White House correspondent for the Cable News Network, which has been repeatedly singled out by the president as a purveyor of “fake news.”
Jim Acosta, who sits in the front row for the White House press briefings, asked Sanders whether she was trying to say, in response to VOA’s question, whether the Trump administration was a champion of the free press.
“We support a free press, but we also support a fair press,” Sanders replied. “And I think that those things should go hand in hand and there’s a certain responsibility by the press to report accurate information.”
The press secretary then said she frequently finds herself “taking your questions in a tone that’s completely unnecessary, unneeded and frankly doesn’t help further the conversation or help the American people get any more information in a better way, which is your job and my job.”
Sanders then moved on to another reporter as Acosta attempted to continue his line of questioning, but not before Acosta interjected with a comment of his own that “the president’s tone toward the press obviously is not helpful at times, and I think that’s plain to see.”
Such testy televised exchanges between prominent American journalists and the White House press secretary — and sometimes the president himself — have further polarized Americans about both the conduct of the administration and the media since Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016, which followed an unconventional campaign filled with the candidate’s criticism of the press.
Reporters Without Borders, for the second year in a row, dropped the United States two places in its survey of press freedom in 180 countries, citing Trump’s labeling of the press as an “enemy of the American people,” his routine use of the “fake news” term, and the calling for media outlets’ broadcasting licenses to be revoked.
In a February 2017 memo, the then-director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, wrote that Trump had suggested reporters might need to be jailed to send a message about classified information being leaked to the media.
Sanders on Wednesday called it “ridiculous” that the United States fell in the index. In response, Margaux Ewan, the organization’s North American director, cited “an increase in arrests, violent attacks, and online harassment at the local level,” pointing out there were 34 documented arrests of journalists in the country last year.
“It’s hard to believe how anyone could look at those numbers and find a decline in press freedom in this country ridiculous,'” Ewan told VOA.
The organization in its annual report blames Trump for routinely singling out news organizations and journalists for their coverage of him, specifically noting that the president retweeted several violent memes targeting CNN.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the decline in press freedom in the United States “is not simply bad news for journalists working inside the country; the downward trend has drastic consequences at the international level,” noting that the term “fake news” has become “a trademark excuse for media repression, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes.”
In the RSF 2018 index, Norway is considered the top nation for press freedom while North Korea ranks last.