WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi sets a “terrible precedent” for the treatment of the press.
“I don’t like it with respect to reporters,” Trump said during an appearance Thursday on “Fox and Friends.” “We can’t let it happen.”
However, it is a precedent that some press freedom advocates believe the administration might have emboldened.
Trump has been a major critic of the U.S. media, oftentimes lambasting journalists as “enemies of the people” for reporting what he describes as “fake news.”
Since Trump took office, advocates have warned that the harsh rhetoric, frequently used to fire up his base, is having a ripple effect across the globe by empowering world leaders who seek to muzzle reporters.
“That is certainly unbecoming of the country of the First Amendment,” Margaux Ewen, the North America director of Reporters Without Borders, told TMN. “When you also take a look at actions like barring access from certain reporters to White House briefings, the arrest of journalists that still occur in the United States, mostly while they cover protests, those kinds of issues also show that the U.S. is not leading by example.”
“So when our country calls on other countries to respect press freedom, at times that can come off as hollow,” Ewen added.
On Oct. 2, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to retrieve documents for his upcoming while his fiancee waited outside.
There is no evidence that he exited the building and Turkish officials have concluded that Khashoggi was likely murdered once inside.
On Wednesday, Trump disclosed for the first time that he has had “high-level” discussions with Saudi officials on Khashoggi’s disappearance, pledging that the U.S. will get to the bottom of it.
During Thursday’s interview, Trump said the administration is “probably getting closer than you may think” to finding out what exactly happened.
“It certainly doesn’t look like he’s around,” Trump said.
Courney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, noted that it would be unfair to claim Trump directly lead to the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance since Saudi Arabia has a long history of repressing journalists.
Still, Radsch said, the U.S.’ tendency to shy away from confronting human rights issues has sent a negative message to oppressive regimes.
“We have withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council and from UNESCO, both of which have a mandate on press freedom, and this sends a signal. We’ve heard leaders from countries as diverse as Cambodia, to Poland, to Russia, China, Egypt, really around the world using the terminology ‘fake news’ and ‘enemies of the people’ to tar and delegitimize journalists and independent journalism, and try to inoculate themselves from any criticism or investigative journalism.”
While Radsch acknowledged that the current situation offers the president an opportunity to change his tone, she emphasized that more effective steps can be taken.
One response would be taking a firm approach to the the Magnitsky Act, a law that members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee triggered Wednesday requiring the president to decide within 120 days whether or not the administration will apply sanctions against Saudi Arabia.
While Trump has expressed dismay over Khashoggi’s disappearance, he also has said he is reluctant to respond too harshly.
“I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but [Saudi Arabia is] spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others, for this country,” Trump told reporters Thursday in the Oval Office. “I think there are other ways. If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation.”
As for whether or not the president may be changing his tone with respect to journalists, Trump has been silent.
When asked aboard Air Force One Wednesday if his previous rhetoric may have jeopardized Khashoggi, Trump declined to answer.