Before their bilateral meeting in Manila on Monday, President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte posed for pictures. Reporters were late for what is known as the “pool spray” because, according to the pool report of the meeting, they were held up by security.
When they finally got into the room, reporters asked questions of the two leaders regarding Duterte’s controversial human rights record and whether Trump would raise it with him. Here’s what happened next:
Duterte: “We will be discussing matters that are of interest to both the Philippines and … with you around, guys, you are the spies.”
“Hah, hah, hah,” Trump said laughing.
“You are,” Duterte repeated.
Even after his meeting with Duterte, Trump – in an open session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting – seemed entirely unfazed by his colleague’s view on the press. He thanked Duterte “very much for the way you treated all of us.”
“Thank you,” Duterte responded. “This signifies the end of our open session. I would like to request media to leave us alone.” He quickly added: “You may leave the room.”
Context matters here, and shows that Trump tolerating Duterte’s behavior – not to mention laughing at his “joke” – is really bad.
In June 2016, in the wake of two Filipino journalists being killed while working, Duterte said this: “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.”
Things haven’t gotten much better for journalists in the Philippines since then. In a report on the status of journalism in the country in February, the International Press Institute writes this:
“Duterte’s cynicism toward the press appears to be catching on among his supporters. Journalists who criticize the president’s policies or cover sensitive topics like drug trafficking or corruption face defamation suits and an online backlash. Duterte’s supporters attack them outright or report their online accounts to social media platforms, demanding the takedown of ‘inappropriate content.’”
It’s also worth noting that the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist. Since 1992, 78 journalists have been killed in the Philippines, the third highest total in the world – behind only Iraq (186) and Syria (114), according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
None of that is a laughing matter. Not even close.
This also isn’t the first time Trump has “joked” about restricting press freedoms.
At the end of a press availability with the Kuwaiti emir at the White House in September, Trump said “I’m very happy to hear you have trouble with the press also.”
Kuwait isn’t exactly a standard-bearer of press freedom. According to Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organization that studies freedom of the press around the world, Kuwait’s press freedom status is only “partly free” – with a 59 out of 100 overall press freedom score.
“Media operate in a restricted environment,” reads the 2016 writeup. “Journalists and social media users deemed to have insulted the emir or Saudi Arabia often face prosecution, and the government sustains efforts to stifle criticism of its actions and policies.”
In October, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that “it is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.”
Earlier on this 12-day Asia trip, Trump didn’t protest when Chinese President Xi Jinping refused to take any questions from the media. “It was at the Chinese insistence there were no questions today,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
All of these incidents highlight an unfortunate fact: Trump either doesn’t understand the role the American media plays – both domestically and on foreign trips – or he doesn’t care.
His view on the press seems to have more in common with the Philippines, China and Kuwait than it does with established western democracies. Which is telling.