Being of a certain age, I still like to buy the print editions of English-language newspapers when traveling abroad. And I’ve been able to get them, even in countries like China and Myanmar (Burma), where press freedom is severely restricted. But in Moscow two years ago, there was an unwelcome surprise.
The hotel where my wife and I were staying, a Marriott near Red Square frequented by Western tourists, couldn’t obtain American or British papers for its guests. So, I set off on foot to determine whether nearby hotels catering to a similar clientele carried them; they didn’t. Nor did any of the sidewalk kiosks in the area that were crammed with periodicals — just not English-language ones.
This was disturbing. I knew Russia under President Vladimir Putin wasn’t an open society, but until then I hadn’t realized just how closed it was.
Which brings us to Donald Trump.
Our new president not only unabashedly admires Mr. Putin, whom he has called “very smart” and “very much of a leader,” but he clearly shares the Kremlin strongman’s contempt for a robust and aggressive free press, without which democracy cannot flourish.
Let’s look for a moment at Russia.
It ranks an abysmal 148th on the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, which says that since Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012, leading independent news outlets have either been brought under state control or throttled out of existence. (No wonder Mr. Putin notched a lofty 82 percent approval rating among Russians that Mr. Trump cited admiringly last year.)
It seems inconceivable that the United States would ever fall as far as Russia, where at least 34 journalists have been murdered since 2000, according to Punditfact, a non-profit, U.S.-based research organization. But Mr. Trump has raised hectoring and intimidation of our press to a level Mr. Putin would applaud.
During his campaign, Mr. Trump, who assailed reporters from major U.S. news organizations as “slime,” “crooked” and “the lowest form of humanity,” pledged that, if elected, he “would open up our libel laws” so that “we can sue [media outlets] and win money.”
The broadsides against journalists have continued since Mr. Trump became president. The day after his inauguration he called them “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” Days later, his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, declared that the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
In other words, he’s asking the press not to do its job — holding the powerful to account. This is how a descent into an authoritarian state begins.
Media watchdogs are alarmed.
“To those who say let’s wait and see, or maybe it won’t be as bad as you think, or stay hopeful, I’m having none of it,” the Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, wrote recently. “Journalists are in for the fight of their lives.”
Underscoring the tension between the press and the president was Mr. Trump’s Jan. 11 news conference, where he refused to take a question from CNN’s senior White House correspondent, telling him, “You are fake news!”
What Mr. Trump, in his sinister fashion, was doing was conflating an entirely appropriate report by CNN on the existence of salacious but unverified allegations against him in classified material presented to him and Barack Obama — allegations the network rightly didn’t divulge — with the subsequent ill-considered publication of them by the digital media company BuzzFeed.
Referring to Mr. Trump’s putdown of the CNN reporter, Brian Steinberg, an editor at Variety wrote: “A refusal to take questions from a particular media outlet suggests the Trump administration might try to freeze out any outlet that raises issues not to its liking.” Scary.
Of course, Mr. Trump has other potential weapons to wield against news organizations he dislikes besides ignoring their reporters’ questions.
It wouldn’t be out of character for him to try to harass companies for advertising on a network he finds offensive or for underwriting journalism on public radio or television that gets under his notoriously thin skin. And don’t even think about the economic damage he could do to the beleaguered newspaper industry.
The irony in Mr. Trump’s flinging his baseless “fake news” charge at CNN is breathtaking, since he’s a master at spreading falsehoods himself.
Recall his promotion of the notion that Mr. Obama may have been born abroad and thus was an illegitimate president, his assertion that “thousands” of terrorist sympathizers in New Jersey cheered when the twin towers crumbled on 9/11 and his announcement in January 2016 that “Donald Trump gave $1 million” of his own money to veterans causes that month when, in fact, he didn’t do so until last May, after a newspaper reporter made inquiries.
This is why we need a free and unfettered press now more than ever. Moscow is no model.
The author lives in Orient.