By Robert Mahoney, CPJ Deputy Executive Director
For many countries a visit by the U.S. Secretary of State is still a big deal. And in those countries where the independent press is struggling or where journalists are jailed for their work, it can be an opportunity to stand up for press freedom.
That is why the decision by former oil executive Rex Tillerson to embark on his first overseas trip as Secretary of State without the State Department press corps is troubling.
The media in Washington have been crying foul since inauguration day under a barrage of accusations from President Donald Trump that journalists are the enemy of the people peddling fake news.
The administration seems intent on delegitimizing the media to deflect unwanted attention and inoculate itself against future criticism and scrutiny. Revelations by investigative journalists are dismissed as lies. This has been particularly true of domestic beat reporters and White House correspondents over the past seven weeks, but now foreign affairs correspondents are feeling the chilling new climate. That is why reporters assigned to the State Department are right to protest their exclusion.
A senior elected U.S. official arriving in an authoritarian or repressive country with U.S.-accredited reporters in tow is an illustration of the place and importance of the press in a democracy. It doesn’t matter whether those U.S. reporters write critically or glowingly of their secretary.
The fact that they are there, with access, sends a signal to local reporters and officials that the job of the press is to hold power to account by informing the public.
Western reporters can ask “awkward” questions at news conferences with host leaders. After all, they are getting back on the plane and going home. If local journalists dared show disrespect by asking similar tough questions they could lose their jobs or worse.
Accompanying reporters can raise the cases of jailed local colleagues. Many times correspondents from the State Department or White Press corps have asked questions of authoritarian leaders about the failure to prosecute the killers of journalists, the arbitrary detention of reporters, and shuttering of news outlets. It’s news reporting, but it’s also effective advocacy for colleagues and press freedom.
And a visiting Western official has more credibility with his or her local counterpart when raising a press freedom or other human rights issue if a gaggle of critical reporters is on the scene.
Tillerson did not leave all reporters on the tarmac, however. One outlet was allowed on board for the trip to Japan, South Korea, and China―the conservative website Independent Journal Review.
All politicians have their favorite publications and reporters, and feed news tidbits and grant interviews accordingly.
However, playing favorites when granting access to major events of public interest like high-level diplomatic trips sends a dangerous signal. That is what dictators and authoritarian leaders do. They use access to reward loyal journalists and commentators, and punish critics.
Even the suspicion that U.S. officials might be doing this is damaging.
State Department officials said Tillerson did not take reporters because he chose to travel on an aircraft that did not have enough room for the press. On his next trip, the secretary should get a bigger plane.