President Trump's assailing of media sees US diplomat grilled on issue at conference

Ms Michelle Giuda said US President Donald Trump "has been very clear in calling out unfair or inaccurate news when he sees it, as is his right to do".
Ms Michelle Giuda said US President Donald Trump "has been very clear in calling out unfair or inaccurate news when he sees it, as is his right to do".ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - US President Donald Trump has assailed the media, and called outlets that don't depict him favourably "fake news".

And a number of journalists from around the world at an international media conference on Monday (June 25) are concerned that this will embolden other countries to clamp down on the press.

But a senior official from the State Department maintained on Monday that the United States remains committed to press freedom, in the face of scepticism from the audience of around 300 media professionals.

"Our goal in the US is to help defend that right - open and free press, freedom of speech - and to help advance our values and help our partners in other countries do the same thing," said Ms Michelle Giuda, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in a speech at the East-West Centre's International Media Conference.

She outlined her government's efforts to engage local and foreign journalists, identify and counter disinformation, and promote media literacy skills in countries such as Myanmar. US diplomats have spoken to governments about the importance of a free and open press, and called for fair treatment of journalists.

But moderator Donna Leinwand Leger, former managing editor of USA Today and former president of the National Press Club in Washington, DC, pointed out that Mr Trump "often denounces coverage he doesn't like as fake news, which is not the kind of message you are bringing here". "It contradicts it. It undermines the media. And it's a tactic that has been used in this region to squelch the press," she added.

To applause from the audience, she asked: "How does the State Department continue to bring its message when the president is setting a bit of a poor example?"

The fact that this debate can happen is one of the most powerful things about the United States, countered Ms Giuda, who for close to 20 minutes fended off questions on Mr Trump's treatment of the media and its repercussions on press freedom and trust in the media.

"The president has been very clear in calling out unfair or inaccurate news when he sees it, as is his right to do. As is the right of every single US citizen. So it's a debate we can have," she said, setting off a murmur in the audience. "It's out in the public. And now it's up to the American people to decide. It's for the news to report on… We're having a healthy dialogue about it."

It was a line of argument she would repeat five more times, as journalists in the audience put the spotlight on Mr Trump.

Some pointed out that the US president and government have been a source of disinformation. Others worried that other leaders would be empowered to deride the press as well.

Asked if there was a mechanism to hold the government accountable if it spreads fake news, Ms Giuda said this was done by the American people.

"They're our customers. They're the ones at the end of the day who, because they have free speech, can voice their opinion. They can also go vote. They are also the customers of the news media. So it's up to them to decide," she said, pointing out that Mr Trump currently enjoys the same rating as former presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan - 44 per cent, according to a new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

The Bill of Rights protects the rights to freedom of speech and the press, she added.

Ms Leger wondered whether this debate was a fair one.

She drew a swift response from Ms Giuda, who pointed out that people were free to post what they wanted on social media on their smartphones - especially in the US - because of freedom of speech.

Talk of Mr Trump's attitude towards media continued at a later panel on fake news.

Hong Kong Baptist University professor Cherian George said: "One of the silver linings of the Donald Trump presidency, and there aren't many, is that because he has so unsettled and turned the media establishment upside down into a tizzy, they are finally taking disinformation seriously."

Dr George felt the debate on disinformation should have begun much earlier, citing as "the single most damaging, destructive, fatal instance of disinformation" falsehoods publicised in the media that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which resulted in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that led to the death of hundreds of thousands.

"That was the mother of all disinformation campaigns. At least Donald Trump has woken up the US to the problem now," he said.

Concerns about the state of press freedom in Asia were also discussed. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance's advocacy manager Kulachada Chaipipat noted how last year, her organisation recorded 128 incidents of threats to and attacks against media and journalists.

The Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has embraced a Trump-esque attitude towards the press, railing against news sites with critical coverage of his administration - topped this list, with 42 such cases. Of these, 24 were of intimidation, including verbal and death threats.

Ms Maria Ressa, chief executive officer and executive editor of Rappler, a Philippine news site Mr Duterte has dubbed "fake news", detailed how social media armies were mobilised to attack news outlets and reporters, spreading fake news and hate.

She got as many as 90 hate messages in an hour, including rape threats.

"The government literally tried to shut us down. But we're still alive," she said to applause. "Every day that we're publishing, I'm really happy. This is the reality I live with today and I've done nothing more than be a journalist."