US: Trump comments on revoking media licenses threaten free speech

Recent comments by US President Donald Trump calling for the revocation of media licenses of broadcasters he refers to as “fake news” are another attempt by the President to undermine media freedom and the right to freedom of expression in the US, ARTICLE 19 said today. Comments by President Trump, posted to his Twitter account, called for licenses to be “challenged, and, if appropriate, revoked”. This is another in a long line of worrying attacks on a free press from the President, who has referred to critical news outlets as “fake news” repeatedly since taking office. The President must reverse this dangerous rhetoric, and members of Congress should condemn such comments, which threaten the core values of press freedom and freedom of speech in the US.

Following reports by NBC news regarding Trump’s nuclear pla


n, the President told reporters on 11 October 2017 it was “disgusting” that journalists were able to write whatever they wanted, and called for revocation of licenses of “partisan, distorted and fake” news agencies.

Tweet by President Trump

The US President does not have the power to unilaterally revoke media licenses, which are granted to individual stations by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC sets broadcasting standards, reviewing them regularly against public interest requirements, and is an independent government agency overseen by the US Congress, not the President. However, comments like this, while not necessarily actionable, are an effort to intimidate news outlets out of criticising the current administration. They could also create a chilling effect, particularly on smaller news outlets that may be more vulnerable to attacks on their reputation or licensing.

The right to freedom of expression, and therefore media freedom, is protected in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, as well as in the US’s obligations under international law through the ICCPR. This right includes the expression of ideas others may disagree with, and protects journalists’ ability to determine the content of their stories and write “whatever they want”, independent of the government, and abiding by professional ethics standards.

The US has had a thriving independent press for many years, which provides an essential contribution to democracy, enabling the free flow of information and ideas, and holding the powerful to account. Efforts to undermine the media are efforts to undermine the functioning of US democracy itself.

Silencing independent media outlets through false claims of “fake news”, and the arbitrary revocation of media licenses, are moves common to authoritarian leaders, keen to control the flow of information in their favour and stamp out dissent. This is a dangerous path for the US President to be taking, and if he is genuinely committed to upholding the values of the US Constitution, we urge the President to end verbal attacks on the media and reverse his stance on independent reporting. We equally call on members of the US Congress and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, to condemn these attacks on media freedom.