Europe's journalists to US press: Don’t lose what you have

January 5, 2017 01:30

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chairman
 
Last month I had the opportunity to give a speech and sit on a panel at a Center for Independent Journalism conference in Budapest, Hungary. I spoke about the important role journalism organizations can play in maintaining press freedoms and integrity, and debated how to fight back against “fake news” on the internet.

But all anybody really wanted to talk about was Donald Trump.

I spent a lot of time preparing my remarks, but it seems I could have filled all my allotted time by simply standing up and saying, “I’m from the United States and we just elected Donald Trump to be President. Questions?”

The Hungarian, German, Polish, Serbian and Czech journalists I spoke with see Donald Trump through a different historical lens than most US voters, and seemed very concerned about his victory.

Many journalists in southeast Europe are not working under the best conditions for an independent press. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary fell 48 places in the last five years in Reporters without Borders press freedom rankings. They are now 67th. (The USA is 48th.)

Orban is no fan of the free press, and his critics accuse his him of going after non–state supported media with regulations, tax laws and giving lucrative state funding advertising dollars only to friendly media. Hungary’s largest daily independent newspaper, Nepszabadsag, was forced to close last fall. Many believe Orban put pressure on the company that owned the newspaper, but the government denies that.

Some quick trivia: Prime Minister Orban was the first European leader to endorse Donald Trump, and the first to congratulate him after Trump’s victory.

The press freedoms in other countries in southeast Europe vary, but there was a common theme in my conversations with them: All envy the freedom of the press enjoyed by journalists in the United States.

“Your First Amendment is an example to all journalists around the world,” one writer told me over dinner.

While we certainly have our own concerns (no federal shield law, weak or ignored FOI laws, etc), many of these journalists look to the United States as the goal to strive for in their own journalism ideals. They also fear, rightly or wrongly, that this ideal could be taken away under a Trump administration.

I tried to explain to them that the President can’t change the Constitution, that we have a system of check and balances, and that it’s increasingly clear that Trump says lots of things without a real plan to carry them through.

But again, their history is different than ours. They tell me they’ve seen things like this before. They ask if the American people would come to the defense of the free press if it were under attack?

That question made me stop and think. Would they? Would they really?

There are days I’m not so sure.

But the discussions were a reminder of how important a free press is not only to our country, but around the world. It was also a reminder of how fragile a free press can be when we take it for granted, and many around the world are watching us in hopes that we don’t lose it.