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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Sept. 21, 2017.
Mary Altaffer/AP
Citizenship

Justin Trudeau Says Attacks on Press Undermine Democracy

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Press freedom, which is part of Global Goal 16, is key to holding leaders accountable and pursuing a world without poverty. You can join us in taking action on this issue here.  

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday that a robust and free press is essential to a functioning democracy and criticized leaders who attack and seek to silence news organizations, according to CBC Canada.

The prime minister was speaking at a press freedom event hosted by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as part of the inaugural Paris Peace Forum, a gathering of countries dedicated to improving international cooperation on a range of issues.

"If a democracy is to function you need an educated populace, and you need to have an informed populace, ready to make judicious decisions about who to grant power to and when to take it away," Trudeau said.

"When citizens cannot have rigorous analysis of the exercise of the power that is in their name and they have granted, the rest of the foundation of [their] democracies start to erode at the same time as cynicism arises,” he added.

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Trudeau’s words come amid a global rise in attacks on media institutions and journalists that are fanned by political leaders, according to RSF.

For example, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has said that reporters are “not exempted from assassination” and recently approved a measure for imprisoning journalists critical of him. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi hires troll armies to disparage and foment anger against journalists. Turkey’s leader, Recep Erdoğan, has dissolved independent news organizations and jailed dozens of reporters in recent years, and Egypt’s President Abdel el-Sisi regularly accuses reporters of terrorism and recently enacted a law to clamp down on social media.

Even in the US, which has historically stood as a global beacon of press freedom, President Donald Trump routinely calls the press “the enemy of the people,” a phrase that echoes the former Russian tyrant Joseph Stalin. In October, a pipe bomb was sent to the headquarters of the news organization CNN, a frequent target of President Trump’s aspersions.

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Earlier in the year, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights censured Trump for his “reckless” attacks on the media.

This rhetoric has contributed to an increasingly hostile media environment. At least 45 journalists have been murdered this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and a record number of journalists have been jailed for doing their work, with Turkey, China, and Egypt detaining the most reporters.

Efforts to silence journalists and deny them freedom have had an overall chilling effect, with news organizations often opting to steer clear of sensitive stories out of fear of being retaliated against, RSF reports.

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“The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement. “Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.”

Trudeau stopped short of criticizing specific countries in his remarks on Sunday, but he urged citizens around the world to defend the press against incursions of totalitarianism.

Read more: One More Sign That Journalism Is Under Attack All Around the World

"There have always been tensions between those who would speak truth to power and those who like having their power, thank you very much, and don't necessarily want to see it frittered away," he said.

"But we are now in a phase where that capacity to speak truth to power, the very capacity for a citizen to engage with truth, is under attack,” he added. “And not just by the powerful, but by those who would see our institutions themselves weakened."