Democracy In The Era Of Trump: The Demise Of The Free Press


Public News Service journalist, Daniel Heyman, was arrested this week when he attempted to question Tom Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), about the American Health Care Act (AHCA) at the West Virginia State Capitol. On Tuesday, Price and senior White House aide, Kellyanne Conway, paid a visit to the Capitol to learn about efforts to counter opioid abuse in the state that holds America’s highest drug overdose death rate. It was during this visit that Heyman was arrested and charged for the wilful destruction of state government processes when he sought an answer from Price regarding whether or not domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under Trump’s healthcare legislation.

While the arrest was made in part because Price was uncomfortable with the question, the event has exacerbated interest in the healthcare proposal. Despite apparent intentions, the arrest has not stifled the press. On the contrary, two key matters have been thrown into the spotlight. Firstly, the arrest of Heyman has drawn attention to his question, which has citizens calling for a response. Needlessly dramatizing his questioning has facilitated a global reaction that not only overwhelmingly condemns Heyman’s arrest, but that problematizes Price’s response, or lack thereof. This contributes to growing concerns surrounding the AHCA—an Act that significantly jeopardizes those suffering from pre-existing conditions from receiving affordable insurance.

On 4th May 2017, the ACHA was passed by the House of Representatives and was sent to the Senate for deliberation. The bill, largely repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), seeks to reinstate the power for health insurance companies to deny coverage to those suffering a pre-existing condition, such as cancer or heart disease. Controversially, rape could be included as a pre-existing condition. The consequences of this would be twofold: not only would inhibiting rape victims access to insurance be vastly discriminatory, but the legislation would also deter many victims from reporting the abuse in an effort to ensure affordable health coverage. This would undo the progress being made to bring sexual violence into the public discourse and to promote support for victims.

Secondly, the arrest of Heyman epitomises the ongoing attempt to suppress the American press. As the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia highlighted in their official statement on Tuesday, “Freedom of the press is being eroded every day. We have a President who calls the media ‘fake news’ and resists transparency at every turn. And today, a reporter was arrested for trying to ask a question to members of President Trump’s administration. Mr. Heyman’s arrest is a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press.” Whilst it was claimed that the grounds on which Heyman was arrested were related to his physical actions rather than his questions, the complaint noted, somewhat incongruously, that “the defendant was causing a disturbance by yelling questions at Ms. Conway and Secretary Price.” Still facing charges, Heyman claims to have been exercising his rights to free speech and free press as protected by the First Amendment. Questioning the legitimacy of Heyman’s arrest, CEO for Public News Service Lark Corbeil commented on Tuesday that “an arrest for a reporter doing his job is clearly unnecessary.”

For a nation that prides itself on democracy and the freedom of expression, inhibiting those who represent and underpin these ideals is contradictory. With President Trump favouring the Russian media in his Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister on Wednesday, and threatening to “cancel all future press briefings” on Saturday, the die is seemingly cast. Whilst the media are renowned for being assertive and, at times, obtrusive, when did the “free world” determine this as criminal behaviour? Transparency is a key element of democracy and is most commonly achieved by the successful functioning of a free press. When transparency is denied, democracy has failed. In a country determined by uncertainty, a press which is granted the freedom to operate independently is of the utmost importance.