U.S. President Donald Trump’s feelings towards the press have been openly and brashly expressed over his short stint in the Oval Office. His damning assessment of the media as an “enemy of the American people” and his seemingly never ending denigrations have been widely publicised.
While Trump’s vocal criticism of the media is nothing new, the ripple effect we’re seeing overseas from this divisive rhetoric, is.
This week, a government spokesman in Cambodia cited the American leader when threatening to shut down certain foreign news agencies who endanger “peace and stability” and urging them to “reconsider” how they broadcast.
In reference to Trump’s decision to ban several media outlets, including CNN and The New York Times, from a White House briefing, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan took to Facebook to praise the president, saying the step “sends a clear message that President Trump sees that news published by those media institutions does not reflect the real situation.”
He added: “Freedom of expression must be located within the domain of the law and take into consideration national interests and peace.”
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen echoed Siphan’s sentiment, saying that both he and Trump see the media as stirring anarchy.
Hun Sen, whose rule of more than 30 years has been marked by accusations of human rights abuses and corruption, also said Cambodian journalists who reported on human rights could undermine national security.
“Donald Trump understands they are an anarchic group,” he said in reference to journalists, adding “Anarchic human rights are rights that destroy the nation. I hope foreign friends understand this.”
While Trump’s election victory may not have a fundamental and material impact on direct policies in Cambodia, Hun Sen is taking advantage of the situation and using Trump to legitimise his oppressive behaviour against the press.
Trump and his administration have essentially gifted Hun Sen, and other autocratic leaders like him, a justification for attacks on journalists and all sorts of other parochial policies.
The remarks in Cambodia show Trump’s clash with the media should not only be a cause for concern in America, but for all burgeoning democracies around the world. His hateful rhetoric has larger implications as it is coming from a country which prides itself as being the leader of the “free” world and is a vocal patron of democracy and human rights. If it’s acceptable in America, it can be acceptable anywhere.
It is not just in Cambodia we’re seeing this ripple effect. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte specifically referenced Trump in his damning of the media when referring to unfavourable reports about his expenses last month.
“Don’t believe the media that much,” he’s quoted as saying. “As Trump said, they are dishonest.”
China’s state media, an unlikely source of Trump sympathies, has also begun echoing his message in several state-controlled broadcasts.
The country launched a Trump-style attack on foreign media on Thursday following reports that a human rights lawyer was tortured by government agents.
Xinhua, the government’s official news agency, accused the overseas media of publishing nothing but “cleverly orchestrated lies” and asserted “the stories were essentially fake news.”
The language used here underlines how Trump’s attempts to discredit the press by using the term “fake news” is being picked up by authoritarian regimes and state media around the world.
These sentiments have also been echoed by Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who admired Trump’s put down of a CNN reporter as it put him “in his place”, and in Egypt where authorities applauded Trump’s claim that the media “deliberately doesn’t report” terror attacks.
These are not countries known for their blossoming democracies.
When Trump normalises the abuse of the press and champions a smear campaign against their credibility, the signal is not lost on the countless countries stalled between democracy and dictatorship. These include many in Asia that are edging ever closer to tipping the scales into total state control.
Leaders of such nations are paying close attention to the messages coming from the world’s leading democracy and will take their cue from the White House over what is considered acceptable.
The longer it goes on and the more vicious Trump’s attacks get, the more despotic leaders will begin to believe that they can get away with more brutality.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent