- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2018

SINGAPORE — A top U.S. State Department official here defended President Trump’s oft-stated characterization of certain American media outlets as “fake news” on Monday, despite objections from regional journalists who say Mr. Trump’s contentious posturing has emboldened Asian governments to crack down on free press in their own countries.

“The president has been very clear in calling out unfair or inaccurate news when he sees it, as is his right to do,” Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Michelle Giuda said at a global media conference that has drawn hundreds of journalists from across Asia, the U.S. and beyond to Singapore this week.

“One of the great things and most powerful things about the United States is that we can have this debate,” Ms. Giuda said. “It’s for the news to now report on, and it’s out there, and we’re having a conversation about it and a healthy dialogue about it.”

Her comments came in sometimes testy exchanges with journalists, during which several questioned how the U.S. can legitimately claim to promote media freedom internationally when its president so sharply and openly criticizes news outlets at home.

Former USA Today Managing Editor Donna Leinwand Leger, who moderated Monday’s discussion, questioned whether the State Department is concerned that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric “empowers other leaders to act the same way and squelch press freedom.”

Ms. Giuda pushed back, asserting that U.S. diplomats serving under the president have not held back from “calling out for freedom of the press” in nations such as Malaysia, which made international headlines in April by passing an anti-fake-news law that was widely criticized as tool for authorities to clamp down on opposition media.

With a newly elected administration in Malaysia since vowing to clarify the law amid public outrage, Ms. Giuda asserted that U.S. diplomats have also “been clear in calling out and speaking to other governments” about the need to uphold media freedoms, regardless of the debate over fake news playing out in America.

But many at the conference in Singapore expressed doubts, arguing that Mr. Trump’s statements criticizing the press have been watched closely by leaders in some of the world’s most fragile democracies.

Several journalists noted the infamous February 2017 tweet in which the president declared that, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

While Mr. Trump’s base embraced the tweet as a justified shot at specific outlets for perpetuating a false narrative around as yet unproven allegations that his 2016 campaign colluded with Russia, critics claim such statements by the president have had a dangerously negative ramifications overseas.

“Nothing has done more to damage press freedom around the world than the current U.S. administration,” said Tom Grundy, the top editor at Hong Kong Free Press, a nonprofit news outlet known for standing up to media repression.

“The White House has emboldened authoritarian leaders with its fake news narrative,” Mr. Grundy told The Washington Times on the sidelines of the conference in Singapore. “It’s been a gift to authoritarian regimes across Asia, although you can see it most in Cambodia and Myanmar.

While both of those nations are in currently in the throes of intensifying government crackdowns on the press, others at the conference said tension between elected leaders and news outlets they don’t agree with is soaring elsewhere as well.

“Just Google the term ‘fake news’ and see how it has come into vogue in many countries,” said Cherian George, a journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “This term has been used to target journalism and it’s very widespread in Asia, including in India … where the mainstream press is really defensive as a result of an assault by President [Narendra] Modi.”

But Mr. George, who spoke on a panel in Singapore, also suggested Mr. Trump may simply be a character in much larger and ominous reality playing out in the relationship between power and the information in the Internet age.

Trump is an example of a trend globally that can be called authoritarian populism, where part of the playbook is to undermine the credibility of of voices of reason,” he claimed. “What’s left when you remove reason from the table is power … which is why this is such a popular playbook among authoritarian regimes.”

Still, it’s a phenomena whose roots are debatable.

Reporters Without Borders, for instance, cited a “clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments” back in April 2016, some six months before Mr. Trump was elected.

The Paris-based organization went far further in this year, citing increased “hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders.” It also described Mr. Trump as a “media-bashing enthusiast,” who has “referred to reporters as ‘enemies of the people,’ the term once used by Joseph Stalin.”

Such characterizations loom in the backdrop of this week’s conference in Singapore — an event organized by the Hawaii-based East-West Center, which receives financial backing from the U.S. government. The three-day event — titled “what is news now?” — features discussions on a range of challenges facing the global media, including more palpable threats by governments notoriously less tolerant than Washington of criticism. One panel on Monday examined journalism “from the frontline of China’s surveillance state.”

Ms. Giuda, meanwhile, defended Mr. Trump for stirring up necessary debate on the whole issue of fake news.

“We don’t have laws that regulate fake news,” she said. “Our laws uphold and defend freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”

What the president has done is spark a “great conversation,” said Ms. Giuda, who was a senior vice president at the corporate communications firm Weber Shandwick before Mr. Trump appointed her to take over State Department messaging earlier this year.

“White House press briefings still go on, the Department of State still has press briefings,” she said. “Journalists still have access to the United States government, and we don’t inhibit them in any way. So, it’s up to the American people to decide.”

Still, some at the conference expressed concern that the American people may not be aware of the impact in other corners of the world. One journalist on hand from a South Asian nation said they believed Mr. Trump’s public comments on the media have made their own government less fearful of being called out by Washington for cracking down on free speech.

The journalist asked not to have their name or the specific country mentioned, telling a reporter from The Times that, “if my name appears in your article, I’ll be in hot water with my government when I get home.”

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