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Globe editorial: Don’t be fooled – Trump is a serious threat to free speech

American President Donald Trump talked openly on Wednesday about using the power of government to punish media outlets that run stories he doesn't like.

"With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!" the President tweeted.

We have our own question: At what point is it appropriate for Americans to worry that Mr. Trump's constant undermining of free speech might pass the point of no return?

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During his campaign, and ever since his election, the President has repeatedly debased the work of journalists who have the temerity to point out his questionable statements, starting with his false claim that he drew the biggest inauguration crowd in history.

He is responsible for the now widespread use of the cliché "fake news" to describe inconvenient facts that are contradictory to a person's interests, or which put the lie to a person's statements.

In February, he called the media "the enemy of the American people." For good measure, on Wednesday he said that, "It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it." He was speaking from the Oval Office, the seat of American presidential power.

We don't doubt that Mr. Trump is personally unhappy about the fact that the crude, contradictory and often false things he says are scrutinized by the press. Or that he would very much like Americans to agree with him that press freedom is not in their interests because it is not in his.

But the President is playing with fire. His relentless attacks could build a momentum of their own, and no one who values free speech should be complacent.

Yes, it may be easy to laugh off his threats, because he makes so many and rarely sees them through. And yes, he is badly informed. Challenging the broadcast licenses of American TV networks would be difficult because, as was quickly pointed out by many, the networks aren't licensed – only their individual stations are.

But assuming all will be well is a mistake. Mr. Trump represents a dangerous evolution in U.S. political culture. Other presidents have tried to suppress information or acted in bad faith behind closed doors. But no modern president before this one publicly threatened mass government restrictions on the press, or characterized the entire media, in a phrase borrowed from totalitarian regimes, as "the enemy of the people."

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He is using his office to sow doubt among his supporters about the necessity of a free press, and using Twitter to hammer home the idea that they must rely only on him, or on reporters deemed acceptable by him, for the truth.

Some may take comfort in their belief that the U.S. Constitution's nearly unlimited guarantees of freedom of speech and the press will prevent this President from going through with his threats.

But those who do should remember that the constitutions of Russia and Turkey guarantee freedom of the press, and yet the governments of both countries have been able to silence media they don't like with repressive measures, including the revocation of licences, and legislated censorship upheld by courts stacked with political cronies willing to ignore the constitution.

This week in Turkey, a Wall Street Journal reporter was sentenced in absentia to two years and a month in prison for "engaging in terrorist propaganda," because she wrote a column that displeased the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The conviction was handed down in the middle a widespread media crackdown in Turkey. Journalists and editors have been rounded up, imprisoned and charged for doing nothing more than report the facts – an unforgivable crime in the eyes of the notoriously thin-skinned and autocratic Mr. Erdogan.

In Russia, journalists have been murdered and assaulted, and foreign correspondents are denied access to troubled parts of the country. The government has outlawed some speech outright, and further relies on corrupt courts to harass anyone who publicly criticizes or questions those in power.

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And yet every single critical story that reporters in Turkey and Russia have tried and failed to publish has ostensibly been protected by constitutional guarantees against government interference.

These states of affairs did not come about overnight, and they wouldn't exist without the support of many Russians and Turks willing to believe their leaders' claims that press restrictions are in their country's best interest.

Any country's constitutional protection of a free press, Canada's included, is only as valuable as its citizens' and politicians' willingness to defend it vigorously.

In the U.S., that critical right is under one of the most pernicious and sustained attacks in its history. It would be a potentially fatal error to assume that nothing bad will come of it.

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