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Autocrats everywhere must be smiling

“In Trump’s political universe strength and ruthlessness are desirable in a leader. He is on the record as seeing such qualities in President Vladimir Putin.”
Deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York based press freedom group
Savannah Guthrie and Matt Lauer interview Donald Trump during NBC's Today Crédito: D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

Warranted or not, the US media stand as a beacon of press freedom for much of the world.

That’s what makes presidential candidate Donald Trump’s latest broadside against The Washington Post particularly disturbing.

Autocrats everywhere must be smiling that the man who could theoretically be the next leader of the free world just handed them an excuse for more bad behavior.

For decades Trump has used the press to boost his business brand and in the past year he has exploited the media to launch his bid for the presidency, garnering in the process the equivalent of $55 million of free advertising in 2015 alone, according to one study.

But as the real estate developer and reality TV host began to pull ahead in the primaries to become the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, journalists started digging deeper into his past and fact-checking his headline-grabbing claims and smears.

The result did not sit well with the billionaire. On Monday his campaign revoked the press credentials of the Post, in theory banning staff from the paper that uncovered the crimes of the Nixon presidency from traveling with the nominee. Trump called the Post “phony and dishonest” for its reporting on his remarks about President Obama’s reaction to the Orlando shooting. Its editor Marty Baron called the move a repudiation of the role of a free press and vowed to continue covering the Trump campaign.

The ban has garnered a bumper crop of US headlines but so far no significant collective pushback by US journalists. News staff at Univision, a major Spanish and English language media conglomerate, wrote an open letter calling for the ban to be lifted. And Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called for a media blackout of Trump: “I don’t mean an outright ban of Trump coverage. That would be shirking our civic responsibility. But I suggest an end to the uncritical, free publicity that propelled him to the GOP nomination in the first place.”

Trump’s onslaught probably came as no surprise to the long list of news outlets such as the Univision group and also including Politico, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post whose reporters have at various times been barred from covering Trump events.

But the move against the Post, a long-established and internationally known outlet , is an escalation, not least for the message it sends to repressive and authoritarian governments where journalists put their lives and their liberty on the line every day just by reporting the news.

Having the contender for such high office insult, attack or exclude journalists because he does not like what they report about undercuts international press freedom advocacy.

In Trump’s political universe strength and ruthlessness are desirable in a leader. He is on the record as seeing such qualities in President Vladimir Putin, who has effectively muzzled independent broadcasters and newspapers in Russia.

And his solution for pesky reporters who get under his ever so thin skin is to undermine some the basic US protections of free speech. In February, Trump said he would “open up” defamation laws if he became president.

“So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they're totally protected," Trump told a really in Texas.

It is hard enough in meetings with authoritarian governments to seek improvements in the lot of reporters when Western governments freeze out the press or deny them access to information of public interests. The Committee to Protect journalists made this argument when it took the Obama to task over its behavior towards the press in a 2013 report.

If Trump were to be elected president in November it would be even easier for Putin, and the leaders of countries like Turkey, Ethiopia or Ecuador to tell traditional defenders of press freedom to put their own house in order before lecturing others.

In several interviews since the pulling of the Post’s credentials, Trump has said he would not impose similar bans on the White House press corps if elected. "When I'm representing the United States, I wouldn't do that. But I would let people know if somebody's untruthful,” he told CNN.

But for the much of the world that’s not the point.

Disclaimer: We selected this Op-Ed to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and/or the organization(s) they represent and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision Noticias.