U.S. President Donald Trump was notably absent from the White House Correspondents' Association dinner ahead of World Press Freedom Day, making him the first president to miss the annual event since 1981, when Ronald Reagan was recovering from an attempted assassination.
Instead, to mark his 100 days in office, Trump referred to the dinner as "very boring" and gave the media a "big, fat failing grade" for its coverage of his presidency.
"The leader of our country is not here. And that's because he lives in Moscow. It's a very long flight. As for the other guy, I think he's in Pennsylvania because he can't take a joke," said comedian Hasan Minhaj at the event.
Jokes aside, however, Trump's constant attacks on the established media and "fake news," complete with legal changes designed to target journalists and internet neutrality, have many seriously concerned for the future of press freedom. These are three reasons why.
1. New laws against journalists
Trump is considering changing U.S. libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists over negative and false coverage, according to his chief of staff Reince Priebus. Currently, there are no federal laws regarding libel, but rather state laws which can make it difficult for plaintiffs to prove that media had published false and misleading content.
Priebus, said that Trump was considering a possible constitutional amendment to bring in new libel laws, which would require a supermajority in both houses of Congress or a constitutional convention, but also the ratification of three-quarters of U.S. states.
Priebus echoed Trump’s ongoing rhetoric that “newspaper and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed the reports on Monday, adding that it should not come as a surprise. “It's something the president talked about on the campaign trail,” he said.
“This is marching America down the road to authoritarianism," tweeted Democrat member of the U.S. house of Representatives, Ted Lieu. "Reince Preibus statements on stifling the press should alarm even Republicans.”
2. Attacks on “fake news”
Since last year’s election campaign, the term fake news has constantly been thrown, and by none more than Trump. “Fake news” has been commonly used to attack outlets or reports that are critical of Trump or that he does not like, such as election polls.
The very nature of facts themselves have begun to be thrown into question, with his administration presenting the idea of “alternative facts.”
“I'm against the people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn't be able to use sources unless they can use people's names,” Trump, who referred to CNN as the “Clinton News Network," said in February.
Trump claims that he is under constant attack from “fake news” and “the dishonest media,” and as a result loves the first amendment more than anybody. As the war painting established media as fake continues, other "alternative" media sources such as Steve Bannon’s far-right Breitbart — itself accused of running fake news — has gained an increased platform.
"Mr. President, the media is not fake news. Let's take that off the table going forward," Bob Woodward, a journalist who helped uncover President Nixon's Watergate scandal, said in his address at the correspondents' dinner.
Freedom House, an organization that monitors press freedom, has reported that around the world and in the U.S. press freedom has declined and warned that this could continue to further dive under Trump’s reign. “No U.S. president in recent memory has shown greater contempt for the press than Trump in his first months in office,” the organization said.
3. Attacks on the internet
It seems that not even the general public would be safe under changes to the media and internet regulations. As part of a pro-business plan that scraps Obama-era regulations on internet privacy, Trump has repealed rules from the Federal Communications Commission, putting the interests of service providers over internet users.
The changes allow private data and browsing history of users to be bought and sold to advertisers and even the state. The change has been met by heavy criticism from civil liberty organizations and those in the privacy and security industry, while users are being told to carefully guard their online activities.
Trump's changes to the FCC could also have severe effects on net neutrality and other Republican politicians have also signaled their opposition to previous regulations, with Texas senator Ted Cruz referring to net neutrality as the “Obamacare for the internet.”
“People everywhere who love the free and open Internet — and vote — should be very concerned that candidates making their case for running the country are so out of step with the public on this crucial issue,” said president and CEO of the Free Press Action Fund, Craig Aaron.