Opinion: President Trump cheers press freedom — and a press basher

Two weeks after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, President Trump said he believes the Saudi-born journalist is dead, that high-level Saudis played a role and the consequences will “have to be very severe” for such “bad, bad stuff.”

Then the president flew to Montana where he praised Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte, calling him “my guy” for having “body-slammed” a reporter for The Guardian newspaper.

“By the way, never wrestle him,” said Trump, yielding to the temptation to feed more laugh lines to the cheering crowd of his supporters. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy.”

Not mine. As a patriotic American, I hate to describe our president’s attitude as thuggish, but when the shoe fits….

Gianforte, in case you missed it, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs during Gianforte’s special election campaign in May 2017.

Trump’s “guy” went on to win the special election anyway and was sentenced, after an apology to Jacobs, to community service, anger management training, a six-month deferred sentence and a $300 fine.

And Trump got his laughs. Trump habitually bashes the media as a convenient foil for his speeches. Trump famously points to news cameras and bashes media as purveyors of “fake news.” But this new attack reached the new plateau in Montana of actively encouraging a physical attack — without mentioning the “bad, bad stuff” that happened to Khashoggi.

The Saudi-born Virginia resident was last seen entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Saudi agents were waiting inside, according to information leaked by Turkish officials to reporters. Within minutes, the Turks believe, he was tortured, beheaded and dismembered.

His fingers also were reportedly severed, perhaps as a special — and sick — message to other writers who might be considering even the mildest criticism of Saudi Arabia’s autocratic rulers.

Either Trump is tone-deaf to his role as an international leader, which he has demonstrated on numerous occasions, or he simply doesn’t care as long as his punchlines work. Either way, his joking around with the idea of assaulting a news reporter who simply was doing his job sends an ugly message to the world.

The American president’s words matter. President Trump’s anti-media “fake news” and “enemy of the people” language already has been embraced by autocrats around the planet who define “fake news” pretty close to the way Trump does, as any news that he doesn’t like.

Media bashing is an old game, of course, but its language changes.

In June, Egypt passed a “fake news” law criminalizing the spread of false information, making it even easier for the regime to jail purveyors of unwelcome news. Similar accusations in Vietnam reportedly led to a suspension and fines this summer for a local news website.

Even Khashoggi, presumed dead, cannot rest in peace. Hard-line Republicans and conservative commentators have been mounting a smear campaign against the widely honored columnist to help shield Trump from criticism of his handling of the dissident journalist’s alleged murder and its links to Saudi Arabian operatives.

Considering the sensitive international nature of this atrocity, the CPJ, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have jointly called for Turkey to ask United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to launch a UN investigation into the “extrajudicial execution” of Khashoggi.

Around the globe, we have seen democracy under siege in recent times, including in Turkey, which currently leads CPJ’s list of countries with the most journalists who are in jail for doing their jobs. Pushback is necessary. When press freedom is shackled, so is democracy.

Writes for Tribune Content Agency.

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