As President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Helsinki for a joint summit on Monday morning, they were greeted by nearly 300 billboards across Finland’s capital city, criticizing them for attacks on the press in both English and Russian.
“Mr. President, welcome to the land of free press,” one billboard read. “Trump calls media enemy of the people,” read another. “Trump attacks New York Times on Twitter,” reported another billboard. “Fact checkers find numerous mistakes in Trump speech.” Oh, the horrors!
As we welcome the presidents to the summit in Helsinki, we @hsfi want to remind them of the importance of free press. 300 billboards on the routes from the airport to the summit are filled with news headlines regarding presidents’ attitude towards the pressfreedom. #HELSINKI2018 pic.twitter.com/KmYJtLyeNE
— Kaius Niemi (@KaiusNiemi) July 15, 2018
Along with these Trump billboards stood many denouncing Putin in Russian. “Putin increases attacks on the media,” one declared.
— katja⚡️ (@KatjaFin) July 16, 2018
Nearly 300 such billboards line the route from the airport to the center of the Finnish capital, bearing headlines taken from editions of the Helsingin Sanomat. This newspaper, founded in 1889 and currently the largest newspaper among the Nordic countries with a subscription circulation of around 360,000, erected the billboards to send Trump and Putin a message.
“[Trump] is really questioning the fundamentals of free press, which is problematic,” Kaius Niemi, senior editor-in-chief of the paper, told Newsweek. “It is also creating a problem in how people are trusting the media. He is giving a very bad example for other countries by speaking about ‘fake news.'”
While Niemi admitted that Russia’s government attacks against journalists were far worse, he warned that his newspaper was equally concerned about Trump’s “appalling” criticism of the media.
These billboards send a very dangerous message of moral equivalence between Putin and Trump when it comes to government treatment of the media. No matter how aggressive Trump’s rhetoric, America’s president has come nowhere near the extent of Russian attacks on the free press.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Russia ranks 148 out of 180 countries for press freedom. “Between draconian laws and website blocking, the pressure on independent media has grown steadily since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012,” the organization reports. “Leading independent news outlets have tiers been brought under control or throttled out of existence.” Lovely.
Saturated with “state-run propaganda,” the media climate has grown “oppressive.” At least five journalists are detained, and more and more bloggers are being jailed. Human rights nonprofits have been declared “foreign agents,” and murders and physical attacks against journalists go unpunished.
The United States, by contrast, takes rank 45 out of 180. Breathlessly, Reporters Without Borders declared that “the first year of President Donald J. Trump’s presidency has fostered further decline in journalists’ right to report.” While Trump has occasionally attempted to block White House access to multiple media outlets, most of his “attacks” have been verbal rather than institutional.
As usual, the worst Reporters Without Borders can cite are “verbal attacks toward journalists … [use of] the term ‘fake news’ in retaliation for critical reporting,” and Trump’s call “for revoking certain media outlets’ broadcasting licenses,” which he and everyone else knows will never happen. These remarks may create a hostility to the press among some, and occasional verbal and physical attacks have resulted, but these are nothing compared to Putin’s systematic enrollment of the press into the government and stifling of dissent.
While Finland still ranks 4th in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders, recent scandals have pushed it down in recent years. Norway took the top spot in 2017. Interestingly, the home of a journalist with the Helsingin Sanomat was searched last December after she reported that a Finnish military agency had been spying on Russia. The government is still trying to determine whether she and her colleagues broke the law by publishing classified military files.
The Helsingin Sanomat may be attempting to bolster its reputation after this scandal. Seemingly attacking Trump as somehow Putin’s equal in quashing the free press should actually undermine that effort.
While Trump has called certain media outlets “the enemy of the American people,” critics who rush to compare him to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin — who used that phrase as a death sentence for his enemies — are themselves beyond the pale. Even Putin is no Stalin, although his attacks on the press must be condemned.
Even Reporters Without Borders, no friend to Trump, has admitted that no less than one hundred and three countries separate the U.S. and Russia on free press issues. There is simply no comparison.