Clooney calls out Trump media vilification at press freedom gathering

OTTAWA — U.S. President Donald Trump's attacks on the media make reporters more vulnerable to abuse around the world, a prominent lawyer for the rights of journalists told an international gathering on Wednesday.

Amal Clooney didn't mention Trump by name but singled out the phenomenon as happening in the country of James Madison, a Founding Father who became the fourth U.S. president.

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"Today, the country of James Madison has a leader who vilifies the media, making honest journalists all over the world more vulnerable to abuse," Clooney said at an international conference on media freedom in London.

The joint British-Canadian event featured participants from about 100 countries, including politicians, journalists and other activists.

It was billed as a response to the unprecedented and rising danger to journalists around the world. While the United Nations cited the fact that 99 media workers were killed across the globe last year, Clooney's comment drew attention to growing anti-media sentiment in many democratic countries.

It also highlighted the impact of Trump's anti-media tirades in emboldening crackdowns on media by authoritarian leaders in Russia, Turkey and the Philippines, among others.

"These problems are global and they exist even in countries that otherwise have a strong tradition of free speech," said Clooney, who has represented journalists imprisoned in Myanmar and the Philippines. Journalists have also been subjected to recent police actions in Britain and Australia, she added.

Trump has repeatedly called the news media "the enemy of the people," and accused it of selling "fake news" to its readers. He has also called journalists "crazed lunatics."

As the London conference unfolded, the "fake news" slur was levelled again by an elected official in another G7 capital — Ottawa — when a city councillor used the term to criticize a CBC reporter whose story was based on municipal government documents.

Coun. Allan Hubley used the term at a city council meeting hearing updates on a much-delayed light-rail system.

Coun. Shawn Menard said on Twitter it was unacceptable for Hubley to resort to "alt-right 'fake news' allegations" and called on him to "immediately apologize."

Governments from Saudi Arabia to China to Iran have long restricted journalists but the trend is spreading, said Martin O'Hanlon, president of the media union CWA Canada, from London.

"We're seeing the rise of demagogues and ultra-conservative parties in formerly progressive countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines, who are openly hostile to the media," said O'Hanlon, a former news editor in the Parliament Hill bureau of The Canadian Press.

"Let's be clear: journalism is a pillar of democracy and attacks on the media are attacks on our democratic systems."

Politicians such as Britain's Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt and Canada's Chrystia Freeland need to pay more than "lip service" to media freedom, said Clooney.

While she's grateful the two ministers are shining a light on the unprecedented dangers to journalists around the globe, she said they need to do more than make supportive speeches.

O'Hanlon's organization is advocating a plan to bolster the protection of journalists, and one that they hope others will adopt.

Among its points was a call for the creation of a "press passport" similar to a diplomatic passport, sanctions against individuals and government leaders who harm journalists, and support for the UN Convention on the Safety of Journalists and Media Professionals.

"All governments say they support press freedom. The right is even enshrined in North Korea's constitution. What matters is enforcement of that right. And enforcement depends on states," said Clooney.

"My message to all the ministers who are here is that signing pledges and making speeches is not enough. They must make sure that their laws respect media freedom and that their police, prosecutors, judges and citizens do the same."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version conflated a press-freedom plan promoted by CWA Canada with a pledge signed by ministers Jeremy Hunt and Chrystia Freeland.

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