CNN vs Trump: Is there anything for us to learn?
A federal judge on Friday ordered the White House to reinstate the press credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta. His "pass" was revoked after a heated exchange with President Trump. Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, issued what in US legal terms is called a temporary restraining order so that the CNN reporter can continue his work while full hearing is held.
CNN's case is that the withdrawal of the White House Pass was a violation of the freedom of press protected by US law and numerous Supreme Court judgments, all emanating from the landmark feature of the US Constitution, the First Amendment, which says "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…" CNN also raised the point of "due process"—whether any procedure was at all followed in revoking Acosta's pass or it was just an arbitrary order of the President's office.
According to reports, prominent among CNN supporters were the Associated Press, Bloomberg, The New York Times, NBC News, USA Today, The Washington Post, Politico, Gannett, and numerous others. Interestingly, Fox News, which is Trump's favourite news outlet and a vehement critic of Trump's detractors, came out strongly in favour of CNN saying it was a "press freedom" issue. Nearly every prominent US media house came out against the White House decision and took the collective position that "…reporters covering the White House must remain free to ask questions."
For those who may not have followed this story, CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta angered President Trump when he did not yield his mike and continued to question, leading Trump to call him a "rude, terrible person" during a press conference on November 7. Later, Acosta's White House pass was revoked.
What this case proves is that nobody has the right to arbitrarily curtail the activities of the media regardless of how powerful the person may be. Donald Trump, elected to the highest and the most powerful office in the US, did not have the "power" to revoke a simple thing like the White House press pass of a journalist without "due process" and in a way that violates the US Constitution. Regardless of how deeply the US President may dislike a reporter and however much he could be angry at him or her, a person holding an elected office cannot decide on personal whims, prejudices and feelings that affect the freedom of the press.
Judge Kelly's order proves that getting elected to the most powerful office in a country does not automatically give a person concerned a license to act on one's prejudice, vengefulness and personal likes and dislikes, etc. This can happen only when a country is governed by law, and not by caprice, and where institutions are higher than individuals.
Recall how many executive orders of President Trump have been nullified by the judiciary because of their flawed legal status. Again, this could happen only because of the "division of power" that exists between the judiciary, the legislative and the executive branches of the state. Modern democratic states are all based on this fundamental principle of "division of power" so there is a "check and balance" between the three branches of the state. Without such a "check and balance" and the resultant "oversight" of one organ of the state over another, the likelihood of the emergence of "elected despotism" cannot be avoided as has happened in all countries where such a "division of power" and "check and balance" do not exist.
The CNN case also proves the crucial role that the judiciary plays in ensuring the freedom of the media. Judge Kelly not only acted in favour of the freedom of the press but did so most expeditiously, within days—the case was lodged on November 13 and the order was issued on November 16—so that the CNN reporter could resume his work even before the case was heard. The judge could have easily refused to issue the "restraining order" till the hearing of the case. But that would have meant that the CNN journalist would have been unable to carry out his duties as a part of the free press. Judge Kelly did not want that to happen, proving once more how crucial the role of the judiciary is in guaranteeing the freedom of the media.
The CNN incident also shows how critical it is for journalists to be united in fighting for press freedom. All media outlets in the US, regardless of their political inclinations, joined hands in opposing what President Trump did to the CNN reporter. Of special significance is the role of Fox News. We have seen over the last years how blatantly, and in some cases blindly, Fox News supported Trump. Starting from his candidacy and throughout his campaign and later after he became the President, Fox News was and remains a close ally, prompting Trump to term it his "favourite", and calling the rest, especially CNN, the "fake media". In the case of CNN reporter Acosta, the "favourite" came out in support of the "fake" since the issue clearly was of press freedom.
Closer to home, some months ago, a Pakistani journalist was put on the "Exit List" (banning travel abroad) by the home ministry at the insistence of the Pakistan's powerful military. Journalist bodies and most media houses protested in unison, and the journalist's name was dropped from that list.
As is the case in the US, so also in ours, the judiciary is the ultimate guarantor of all sorts of individual and collective freedoms, including the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It is the judiciary that comes to the aid of the press when the constitutional guarantee is violated by governments of the day. It is again the judiciary to whom people and the media turn when restrictive laws are passed and when journalists and media professionals are harassed or jailed under one pretext or the other. We ardently hope that our judiciary would do more to make individual and collective freedoms a far greater reality than it is today, especially in the case of the media. Here, mention can be made of two important judgments by the Supreme Court, one in 2005 and another in 2016, where "Peoples' Right to Know" was most spiritedly upheld.
On the issue of the unity of journalists in Bangladesh, members of this noble profession must seriously introspect deeply as to where we have come because of our disunity on political lines. One repressive law after another are being imposed on us and yet the response from the journalists are muted, if at all. Nothing seems to bring the professional solidarity that is most necessary if we are to protect press freedom and the right to freedom of speech, given to us in our Constitution.
We conclude by mentioning that a CNN-type case has been existing in Bangladesh for nearly two years. The Daily Star and Prothom Alo are prevented from entering the PMO, the Gono Bhaban, and covering all events of the head of the government. We are also barred from entering the Awami League party offices. In spite of this "ban", our coverage continues based on TV footage and secondary sources.
CNN at least knew what triggered the Presidential "ban" and could go to court for redress. As for us, till today we have not been given any explanation either verbally or in writing as to the reasons why we are so prevented.
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.