The crackdown on press freedoms by right-wing US President Donald Trump started on his first day in office, January 20, 2017, according to rights groups and reporters.
Aaron Cantu, an independent journalist, was one of several journalists who were arrested along with protesters, bystanders, legal observers and medics during an anti-fascist bloc march against the inauguration in Washington, DC.
Along with independent photo journalist Alexei Wood, Cantu was among the more than 230 people initially charged with felony rioting resulting from their presence at that protest.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Cantu described his arrest and prosecution as part of a “war for narratives” being waged by the Trump administration.
In April 2017, that “war on narratives” intensified when both Cantu and Wood were among the 212 people dealt a slew of additional felonies after the DC Superior Court returned a superseding indictment.
In December, a jury found six of the defendants, including Wood, not guilty on all counts, but 188 people are still facing hefty charges.
While some have had their charges reduced and others reached plea deals, the bulk of the remaining defendants are facing charges that could land them behind bars for decades.
Cantu described the ostensible effort to stifle press freedoms as distinct from previous measures taken against journalists.
“It is not a traditional authoritarian crackdown on the press, but broadly a cultural phenomenon happening in the context of shifting publishing norms, where the dishonest rich have realised that information silos work in their favour,” he said.
Although not the only example, the cases of Cantu and Wood represent one of the severest attempts to limit the space in which reporters and press workers can safely work, Cantu explained.
During Wood’s trial last month, prosecutors alleged that he could not have possibly been a reporter because he was knowledgeable of terms like “black bloc” and “kettling”.
“Black bloc” refers to a protest tactic in which demonstrators wear all black and conceal their faces to create an atmosphere of anonymity and unity while preventing identification by police or far-rightists who seek to identify them and publish their information online.
“Kettling” is a policing tactic that involves officers surrounding a group in a small area during a demonstration. “It was a clear attempt by the state to define what a journalist looks and thinks like, where they should go, and how they should do their jobs,” Cantu continued.
“It’s hard to imagine that the norms for any other profession could be construed as evidence of a criminal conspiracy, but because journalists already fulfill [an] antagonistic [role] against power – or at least, they should – the political climate in which Wood’s prosecution took place, and in which mine soon will take place, makes our jobs that much more dangerous.”
Rights groups and watchdogs have also decried the charges as part of a broader campaign to stymie press freedoms under Trump’s rule.
The first year of the business mogul’s presidency has been characterised by open attacks on the press and incessant charges of “fake news” against media outlets critical of his policies.
In December, Trump blasted CNN in one of the latest in an ongoing series of attacks on the news network after a correction was issued over a story that inaccurately stated that his son, Donald Trump Jr, was embroiled in a scandal over leaked documents.
That story initially claimed that Wikileaks had offered Trump Jr access to leaked Democratic Party emails, but CNN later retracted that assertion.
Despite CNN’s correction and apology, President Trump accused the network of malicious intent. “Fake News CNN made a vicious and purposeful mistake yesterday,” he subsequently wrote on Twitter. “They were caught red handed.”
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, an advocacy group for freedom of expression, argued that this instance and others like it are part of Trump’s “open war of attrition against the media”.
Trump, who has routinely promoted misinformation and conspiracy theories, has described the media as “dishonest”, “phony”, “sick”, “highly slanted” and “the enemy of the American people”, among other accusations.
“The president has made a persistent habit of these virulent attacks on the press, undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the media, crying fake news every time there’s a story he finds unflattering,” Nossel told Al Jazeera. The seemingly shrinking space for media freedoms did not start under Trump, however.
The administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat and Trump’s predecessor, relentlessly pursued whistleblowers and pressured journalists to hand over the names of their sources.
“Some degree of tension between a White House and press corps is natural … but this is a different order of magnitude,” Nossel added, arguing that Trump’s apparent crackdown on the press has been “much more systematic, pervasive and strategic” than that of the Obama administration and previous presidents.
Earlier this month, Trump wrote on Twitter that he would “be announcing THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR”.
The list of “winners” of the “2017 Fake News Awards” were announced on the Republican National Committee’s website on Thursday. The list appeared to reference some journalistic mistakes regarding Trump. In nearly every case that a mistake was made, however, the outlet had issued corrections.
In response to Trump’s idea of the “fake news awards”, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recognised the “world leaders who have gone out of their way to attack the press and undermine the norms that support freedom of the media”.
Second only to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump was declared runner-up in the category of “Most Thin-skinned” ruler and winner in the category of “Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedoms”. “Under Trump’s administration, the Department of Justice has failed to commit to guidelines intended to protect journalists’ sources, and the State Department has proposed to cut funding for international organisations that help buttress international norms in support of free expression,” the CPJ said in a press release earlier this month.
In August, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his intent to suppress government leakers, threatening both reporters and their sources in the government with a crackdown.
Many of the leaks by federal government employees have been related to allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections.
“One of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas,” Sessions told reporters at the time, alluding to a “staggering number of leaks undermining the ability of our government to protect this country”. Sessions added: “We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited.”
Margaux Ewen, North American director of Reporters Without Borders, also acknowledged a long precedent of the US government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, pursuing journalists for their sources, especially in cases of reputation-damaging leaks.
“The prior administration [of Obama] already had a very dire record,” she told Al Jazeera.
Yet, Ewen argued that under Trump’s administration “the environment is incredibly hostile, and journalists are faced day to day with anti-media sentiment coming from the White House, and that has a trickle-down effect also for members of the public and government officials on various levels”.
“There is definitely an increase in incidents like arrests or physical assault against journalists in the year 2017,” Ewen added.
This year has also got off to a grim start for journalists. On Tuesday, the Senate advanced legislation that would renew the National Security Agency’s ability to conduct a warrantless internet surveillance programme. Last week, the bill passed in the US House of Representatives, where it was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and garnered the votes of several House Democrats.
“Every administration becomes a little more savvy on how to control their message without relying on the press to relay it. That’s a natural continuation from administration to administration,” Ewen said.
“But of course what’s going on with the current administration…you’re seeing a complete escalation of anti-media activity from the US government in comparison with previous administrations.”