The New York Times said it turned to the Irish government to rescue a reporter threatened with arrest in Egypt two years ago out of concern that the Trump administration wouldn’t help.
Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger revealed the incident during a speech at Brown University and in an op-ed published Tuesday. He criticized President Donald Trump for seeding a “worldwide assault on journalists and journalism” and said it’s time for the U.S. to again champion the rights of a free press.
There was no immediate response from the White House.
In August 2017, the Times was contacted by a U.S. government official who warned that Declan Walsh, a reporter based in Egypt, was going to be arrested, Sulzberger said. The Times magazine had just published Walsh’s story about Giulio Regini, an Italian student found dead in Cairo and the subject of a dispute between Italy and Egypt about whether the Egyptian government was involved.
The U.S. official who contacted the Times operated on the belief that the Trump administration would sit on the information and not help the reporter, Sulzberger said. The official feared being punished for alerting the Times.
Walsh, who is an Irish citizen, tweeted that he called the U.S. government press office in Cairo upon getting the warning and was directed to the Irish embassy. Within an hour, an Irish diplomat drove him to the airport and Walsh left for Europe. He has since returned to work in Egypt.
“I owe a belated thanks to (an) Irish diplomat who rushed to help in a tight spot,” Walsh said. “He was cool, swift and fearless.” He said he was also grateful to the Washington tipster.
Sulzberger said that 18 months later, Times reporter David Kirkpatrick was detained and deported in apparent retaliation for reporting information that embarrassed the Egyptian government. When the Times protested, an official at the U.S. embassy said, “What did you expect would happen to him? His reporting made the government look bad.”
For years, when sending reporters into dangerous situations, the Times always felt that the U.S. government, “the world’s greatest champion of the free press,” would have its back, the publisher said.
Now, the paper sees how Trump’s favorite descriptor of stories he doesn’t like, “fake news,” has spread to governments beyond the United States, he said.
“This is a worldwide assault on journalists and journalism,” Sulzberger said. “But even more important, it’s an assault on the public’s right to know, on core democratic values, on the concept of truth itself. And perhaps most troubling, the seeds of this campaign were planted right here.”
Sulzberger said he has raised his concerns directly with Trump, who “listened politely and expressed concern.” Still, the president has escalated his rhetoric against the press, he said.
The publisher took pains to say the Times wasn’t perfect. In fact, a series of mistakes the newspaper made last week in reporting on allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh triggered some of the president’s most bitter attacks against it.
Sulzberger’s timing seemed pointed: His column was published on the day Trump was in New York to speak to world leaders gathered at the United Nations.
At the United Nations, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came to the press’ defense during a news conference with Trump. After Reuters’ Jeff Mason asked Johnson to respond to critics who suggest he resign, Trump interjected that it was “a very nasty question.”
Johnson said, “I think he was asking a question, to be fair, that a lot of British reporters would have asked me.”
In his column, Sulzberger also said it’s time for others to stand up for the free press. He said Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple have a “spotty at best” record of standing up to governments, have turned a blind eye to disinformation and permitted the suppression of real journalism.
“As they move even deeper into making, commissioning and distributing journalism, they also have a responsibility to start defending journalism,” he said.