August 16, 2018 was a day with a difference in the history of the media. Nearly 350 US dailies dedicated their editorial columns to one particular subject: the Freedom of Press. The reason behind such an unprecedented unity is US President Donald Trump, as about 350 of the roughly 1,300 daily newspapers collectively rebutted the president’s accusation that journalists are the enemy of the people. All the broadsheets tried their best to inform readers about what a free press meant in the Trump-era.
Seemingly, the journalists have become endangered species in the US due to President Trump, who possibly is not known to accept criticism. Not only had he accused journalists of spreading fake news, but also portrayed the media as enemy of the people. Once, former US President Thomas Jefferson was heard stating that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. (Freedom of Speech, 1787) Today, there is neither Jefferson, nor the US that could save the media. It is difficult to say whether such a protest has strengthened the democracy in the US, but we have to admit that the move attracted the attention of the global community.
It is to be noted that the media enjoy more freedom in the US compared to other countries, as the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press. It means the news media are not subject to censorship by the US government. The Constitution or the law is not so clear in many countries, including India. In those countries, the freedom of press is implied from the freedom of speech and expression (guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution).
The freedom of press is under attack not only in the US, but also in other countries. The Turkish government has put more than 200 journalists behind bars. In Pakistan, the Army controlled the media ahead of the recently held General Elections. Bangladesh, too, is facing a similar situation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to hold a press conference.
It has also been observed that for four decades, Die Welt – one of West Germany’s leading newspapers – refused to acknowledge the existence of an East German state. Since the paper’s editors expected the Communist regime to collapse within a matter of years, they put scare quotes around its initials whenever they discussed the German Democratic Republic (GDR)…….. (The Democratic Disconnect by Roberto Stefanfoa and Yascha Mounk; The Journal of Democracy, 2016)
Interestingly, no American journalist has to sacrifice his/her life in recent times for criticising the government. Still, the US dailies jointly staged a protest against their president.
What could be the reason for such a strong reaction in the US?
According to a survey conducted recently by Quinnipiac University, one-third of the Americans believe that the media are the enemy of the people. The survey also showed that about one in eight Americans believed the president should close down mainstream news outlets, such as CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times. The Trump Twitter Archive states that he has tweeted 281 times so far, using the term fake news.
This has prompted journalists to join hands and save the media. Perhaps, they have realised that it’s the right time to protest. The Wall Street Journal clearly said that President Trump has the right to free speech as much as his media adversaries.
The co-ordinated protest of the media against the president may intensify the anti-Trump movement, but that movement would be a political one and the media can’t lead a political movement. Only the Oppositions (and not the media) seek public support while staging anti-government protests. Ironically, the US media have triggered a protest to rally the American public in support of the First Amendment.
The situation is really critical in the US. If all the media houses portray a person as villain, then that person can’t expect the media to publish neutral news about him/her. The important thing is that the media will have to struggle a lot in order to safeguard the freedom of press. (But) if the means of struggle endangers its goal, then the struggle will be in vain. There is no easy path to democracy!
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