McCain says suppressing free press is 'how dictators get started'

MUNICH, Feb 19 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator John McCain, defending the media against the latest attack by President Donald Trump, warned suppressing the free press was “how dictators get started.”

The Arizona Republican, a frequent critic of Trump, was responding to a tweet in which Trump accused the media of being “the enemy of the American people.”

The international order established after World War Two was built in part on a free press, McCain said in an excerpt of an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that was released in advance of the full Sunday morning broadcast.

“I hate the press. I hate you especially,” he told interviewer Chuck Todd from an international security conference in Munich. “But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital.”

“If you want to preserve - I’m very serious now - if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started,” he continued.

“They get started by suppressing free press. In other words, a consolidation of power. When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history,” McCain said.

McCain’s comments followed Trump’s tweet and came days after the president held a raucous news conference at which he repeatedly criticised news reports about disorder in the White House and leaks of his telephone conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel underscored the importance of a free press at the Munich conference on Saturday, saying, “I have high respect for journalists. We’ve always had good results, at least in Germany, by relying on mutual respect.”

Merkel did not mention Trump specifically, but called freedom of the press “a very significant pillar of democracy.” (Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Potter)