Donald Trump, the world's biggest cyberbully, has issued another Twitter threat. The target this time wasn't North Korea's "Rocket Man," but another favorite: the media. Yesterday, hours after NBC News aired a report claiming the president wanted a "nearly tenfold" increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Trump took to social media to retaliate. In a series of tweets, the president claimed the news outlet had invented the story in order to "demean" him.
"With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks," he continued in a subsequent tweet, "at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!"
It's no secret that the president dislikes the press. He often lambasts the "fake news" media on Twitter and at rallies. But Wednesday's outburst was the first time that Trump had threatened real retribution.
It was a comment "like one that might have been uttered by an autocratic leader of a nation without a constitutionally protected press," Philip Bump wrote in The Washington Post. In particular, Bump noted, Trump's rhetoric is inching ever closer to that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Over the years, the Erdogan regime has developed a proven playbook for censoring the press: replacing editors with his own lackeys, prosecuting journalists for trumped-up ties to terrorist organizations, and even banning certain media outlets altogether — just the kind of tactic his American counterpart was hinting at on Wednesday.
So far, Berlin has only mustered a pathetic response.
Erdogan's crackdown doesn't seem to hurt his popularity in Turkey, but abroad, the international press has defended its own. On Tuesday, when a Turkish court convicted Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak of engaging in terrorist propaganda, the paper's editor-in-chief Gerard Baker immediately denounced the verdict, calling it "an unfounded criminal charge and wildly inappropriate conviction."
Such condemnations, no matter how strongly worded, won't free Albayrak or other journalists imprisoned in Turkey, however. Only foreign governments have the real influence to weigh on other nations, and most seem to lack the will to take on Ankara.
Writing for the German daily Die Welt, Jacques Schuster noted that even with 11 German journalists currently sitting in Turkish jails, so far, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has only mustered a meager response. "[The imprisoned] are victims of an autocrat, who sees a symbol of weakness in Germany," Schuster wrote. "[Erdogan] can only contemptuously laugh at the neophytes in Berlin, always in fear of their own courage, and their meek threats."
Erdogan and Trump set the media up as a convenient domestic enemy. Though Merkel would never play that game, she and others should also do more to make the defense of a free press a real part of foreign policy.
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