“You guys are the spies,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,  told assembled journalist just before the opening of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting yesterday, refusing to answer any of their questions. 

Standing next to one of the world’s most notoriously brutal dictators, President Trump laughed. 

“You are,” Duterte repeated.

“Hah, hah,” laughed the smiling American president again.

However, hearing the two world leaders laugh about journalists being spies, did not make Middle Eastern journalist Sulome Anderson smile or laugh. It made her angry.

Posing as journalists is a technique spies, activists and even terrorists use,  but to label all journalists as spies – especially members of the Washington press corps who have been carefully vetted –  is an excuse to subvert the rights of legitimate journalists who are seeking the truth from two world leaders who share a taste for an authoritarian style of governing where no one is allowed to dispute their every pronouncement.

In this case, Duterte was refusing to answer questions about his terrible, bloody record on human rights in his own country, where journalists who asked tough questions are subject to being murdered by government agents.

That was the fate of two Filipino journalists in June 2016, bringing this cold-blooded response from Duterte: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch. Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”

Duterte isn’t just making an idle threat. The dictator who has killed literally thousands of his enemies in his homeland, as well as many accused drug dealers, with no legal process, has also laughed as his enemies in the media have been murdered.

Since 1992, 78 journalists in the Philippines have been murdered, the third highest total for any country in the world, behind only Iraq and Syria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

Russia, by the way, is number seven on that deadly list, and it has gotten worse under Vladimir Putin, who Trump met with over the weekend, taking his word that he did not interfere int he U.S. election in 2016 despite overwhelming evidence from the U.S. intelligence community and others that the truth is the opposite.

Trump clearly admires strongmen like Putin and Duterte and is rankled that he can’t emulate their passion for destroying anyone who stands in their way.

“He is showing clear signs of an authoritarian leader, most notably by blurring the national and the personal, considering (a) critique of him similar to a critique of the country, and accepting none of it,” Cas Mudde, associate professor at the University of Georgia, told CNN in October. 

“He clearly considers dissent as unpatriotic and doesn’t believe it should be accepted for protected,” added Mudde. “He craves adulation…and he seems to only respect military leaders and force.”

It frustrates Trump that it hasn’t gotten to that point in the U.S. because there are safeguards like the First Amendment of the Constitution which protects the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, but that hasn’t stopped the president from frequently voicing his displeasure with the way he is covered by the media.

Trump has repeatedly called articles he doesn’t like “fake news,” tried to restrict media coverage, allowed his spokesman to freeze out journalists who ask tough questions.

He even recently raised the specter of using the FCC to take away the broadcast licenses stations owned by TV networks, including NBC, who Trump considers unfriendly.

Later after the “open” session of the ASEAN meeting, Trump was clearly “unfazed by his colleague’s view on the press,” reports CNN. “He thanked Duterte ‘very much for the way you treated all of us.’”

Duterte took that as his cue to dismiss the press: “This signifies the end of our open session. I would like to request media to leave us alone,” adding, “You may leave the room.”

In October, Trump praised Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for their tough policy on journalists who don’t report what they want and do, as they say, often leading to lawsuits or criminal prosecution, all to stifle critics.

“It is frankly disgusting,” Trump said in October, “the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.”

Even on this Asia trip, Trump has happily gone along with the methods of repressive regimes. In China, he agreed that there could be no questions at a press event after a meeting with the Chinese president.

Other American leaders, faced with the same request from the controlling, secretive Chinese leadership, have balked and insisted the American reporters be allowed to ask at least some questions. Not Trump. 

In June, the media writer for the Baltimore Sun wrote about Trump’s treatment of the press as “a darkness spreading over Washington,”adding that “in demeaning the press by denying access and straight answers to simple questions, Team Trump also mocks all of us and our form of government that constitutionally demands accountability from those in power.”

Trump attacked the press throughout his campaign, often endangering reporters who were trying to do their job as he roused his crowd into an angry mob ready to attack journalists.

Since his inaugural, points out the Baltimore Sun, Trump’s White House has worked to change “the way the White House has dealt with the press for almost one hundred years,” adding that the president has called CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and the New York Times, “the enemy of the American people” for not agreeing with him.

In February, after Trump called the press “the enemy of the American people,” Senator John McCain (R-Az) said on “Meet The Press” that “When you look at history, the first thing dictators do is shut down the press.And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying you need to learn the lessons of history.”

Every day Trump is in office, as he meets and greets the world’s dictators while undermining U.S. relations with longtime Democratic allies from Europe to Asia, the assault on the media is part of a larger plan to dominate government and the country even if the vast majority of Americans, according to numerous polls, do not agree with what he is saying or what he is doing.

Sulome Anderson’s father, Terry Anderson,  was the Associated Press bureau chief in Lebanon when he was kidnapped and held for years as a spy when all he was trying to do was his job.

Calling a reputable journalist a spy, or a liar is an excuse to shut them down.

In America, Trump may not be able to imprison media who do not go along with whatever he says, no matter how fake or false, but he can deny them access, file lawsuits, shame them with his political base and try to use the power of the government to take away their licenses, or mess up their plans to merge, as is happening right now with CNN in the pending deal for AT&T to acquire Time Warner.

While many Americans share Trump’s disgust for the way some media report things, lumping everyone from the tabloids to the New York Times into one big steaming pile of anger.

However, most Americans understand that what makes a democracy work is the ability of the press to freely report what is happening, even if the current leaders don’t like it.

Trump is looking for any excuse to change that. At one point he even looked at ways to rewrite the constitution, but so far all he has been able to do is put out his own version of the truth, and accuse anyone who tells the truth of being his enemy.

It is not just the press that is put in danger by Trump’s autocratic instincts, it is the American people who depend on a system that protects those who tell the truth from those, like Trump, who only want to believe their own version of the truth.

And Putin’s version, of course./verifiedpolitics.com/

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