It’s not just Donald Trump. The Presidents of both France and the Czech Republic have shown a troubling disdain and even aggression towards the press in recent weeks. It is a development that is threatening not only the safety and security of reporters, but also threatening their very democracies, as it undermines the core tenet of having a free and fair press. It is also setting a bad example to some of the currently precarious democracies around them, as so-called “illiberal” democracies in Poland and Hungary have grown bolder in their attempts at increasingly authoritarian legislation, pushing at the EU’s tolerance level.
French President Emmanuel Macron has displayed an aversion to journalists since coming to power in May of this year. He has been criticized for forgoing a traditional interview given yearly on Bastille Day, citing that his thoughts are “too complex” for journalists. In a separate incident in September, when asked by reporters why he “spoke so little,” to them, Macron retorted, “I’m not interested in journalists, I’m interested in the French people… journalists have a problem. They are too interested in themselves and not enough in the country. Let’s talk about the French people.”
Additionally, in a recent interview given to Der Spiegel, one of the few sit-down interviews that he has actually done since coming to office, Macron openly blamed the press for crafting his “aloof” persona:
DER SPIEGEL: You have been increasingly criticized in France due to your aloofness. You have been accused of arrogance and hubris.
Macron: Who is leveling those accusations? The press.
DER SPIEGEL: Not just the press.
Macron: Have you ever heard someone on the street say: “He is aloof?”
DER SPIEGEL: Yes.
After this pointed exchange, Macron goes on to assert, “I am not aloof. When I travel through the country, when I visit a factory, my staff tells me after three hours that I am ruining the schedule. When I am with French people, I am not aloof because I belong to them. My view is that the French president belongs to the French people, because he emanates from them.”
He goes on to say, “What I do is this: I am putting an end to the cronyism between politics and the media. For a president, constantly speaking to journalists, constantly being surrounded by journalists, has nothing to do with closeness to the people. A president should keep the media at arm’s length.”
Macron does not explain what “cronyism between politics and the media” he is referring to, nor how it can be solved by isolating journalists. Instead, he is asserting that the French people don’t need the press to report on him to them, because he is already out there with them, not being aloof and whatever else he claims. The fact that he actually believes this is an appropriate manner for an elected official to behave is disturbing, especially when this behavior is really more reminiscent of, say, a king.
If the French president truly “belongs to the French people,” as he espouses, then he should be open to being scrutinized and reported on by journalists, many of whom are also French people. Macron apparently does not see the instrumentality of the press in holding people in power, such as himself, to account for their actions.
Meanwhile, 930 or so kilometers away at a press conference in Pilsen, Czech Republic on October 20th, Czech President Miloš Zeman brandished a replica AK-47 rifle manufactured partially out of a Becherovka liqueur bottle with the words “Na Novináře” inscribed on it, meaning, “For Journalists.”
In a Facebook video taken of the conference, Zeman can be seen showing off the replica assault weapon to a room full of journalists saying, “This is a machine gun. Please take a look, there is a text burnt on it saying, ‘For Journalists.’ You can start to retreat in the back of the room…” He then seems to lose his nerve, and says, “Because I cannot shoot. Do not be afraid, the original cartridge is a bottle of Becherovka.”
Zeman was also recorded upon entering the headquarters of the Council of Europe two weeks ago on October 11th, in Strasbourg, France saying “chase this cameraman out, or I will kill him.”
Zeman’s antics are inciting violence against journalists, especially as his conference appearance came the day after the murder of Maltese reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed in a car bomb attack. Caruana Galizia was instrumental in investigating corruption involving Maltese politicians, including reporting on documents from the Panama Papers cache, which implicated Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in allegedly using “secret offshore bank accounts to hide payments from Azerbaijan’s ruling family.”
While Macron’s rhetoric is nowhere near as inflammatory as Zeman’s, his comments are still dangerous to the principles of a free and fair democracy. Zeman is promoting violence against journalists, while Macron is promoting a (violent) silence towards them. Elected officials need to be held to account, as they have been previously in the Watergate scandal in the US, as some were in the Panama Papers leak, and as they have been in countless more instances. People have a right to know what elected officials are doing and saying, beyond the representations and images politicians want the people to have of them.
Intimidation and angry, isolating rhetoric that was once reserved for authoritarian governments, is becoming more and more typical of democratic leaders. The organization Reporters Without Border reported in their 2017 World Press Freedom Index that, “…violations of the freedom to inform are less and less the prerogative of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. Once taken for granted, media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile in democracies as well. In sickening statements, draconian laws, conflicts of interest, and even the use of physical violence, democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators.”
In times of spurned US leadership and the rise of “illiberal” democracies, European leaders need to show an even stronger commitment to the principles of free and fair societies, and that includes supporting a free and independent press. They should rebuke both Mr. Macron and Mr. Zeman for their comments, and ask them to reconsider their views, while encouraging politicians to vocally support and engage with journalists. Politicians should see themselves as working with journalists to promote and uphold democratic freedoms, not against them.
This opinion piece by Maureen Heydt, student of MSc Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.