By Sandy K. Johnson
The Association of Alternative Newsmedia titled its 2017 conference in Washington “Monuments and Mayhem.” The “mayhem” part has never been more true -- not just in the nation’s capital, but at the local and international level too.
A panel of journalists took a round-the-world look at threats to press freedom: Margaret Talev of Bloomberg and president of the White House Correspondents Association; Margaux Ewen, advocacy and communications director at Reporters Without Borders, North America; and Kevin Goldberg, AAN counsel and National Press Foundation chairman.
Goldberg described a “trickle down” effect that threatens to delegitimize the media. “They see the president of the United States treating the media this way and get applause for it,” he said.
Talev said people at Trump rallies throw water bottles at reporters and yell obscenities at them. She said the day-to-day dealings between media and the Trump communications team have settled into a fairly normal routine but added: “The mood or tenor of the rhetoric is quite different. We’re not used to a sitting president inciting critics.”
Goldberg ticked off a litany of assaults and arrests of journalists in recent months, which were described in detail in this National Press Foundation video.
Ewen said the Trump-incited rhetoric and violent actions have an impact overseas too. “Some things the world’s dictators, the most repressive regimes, have been doing for years,” she said. Now, “they’re watching Trump and taking cues from him.” She used a Reporters Without Borders world map to illustrate press freedom rankings: Norway best, to North Korea worst.
The panel also discussed the threat of leaks investigations and the potential chilling effect on the media and sources. The Department of Justice issued a statement that set the tone for the administration: “Like the Attorney General has said, 'whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail,' and we will aggressively pursue leak cases wherever they may lead."
Goldberg pointed out that there has never been a successful prosecution of a journalist who published classified information -- “not evenly remotely close.” But the climate has persuaded many journalists to change their practices. Tips from the panelists: Avoid contacting sources on their government phones or email. Be aware that your own communications can easily be under surveillance or hacked. If you visit a foreign embassy, leave your electronic devices behind. If you travel overseas, use a “clean” laptop that doesn’t have your source information on it. Use encryption to protect yourself and your sources, like these tools described in another NPF tutorial.
“There are more ways than ever for the government to track people who are sharing information,” Talev said.