Attacks Against Journalists: America’s Free Press?

Attacks against journalists were the subject of an open letter from Reporters Sans Frontiers. Find out why their statement singled out the United States.

It’s been decades since I took part in a demonstration. I used to do it fairly often during the Cold War. 

The arms race in the 80s prompted many of my generation to take to the streets, demanding mutual, balanced and verifiable disarmament between the United States and the Soviet Union. To our surprise, it happened.

Our members were very moderate, and our tactics were non-violent. The most militant thing we ever did was to paint shadows of people on the sidewalk on Hiroshima Day.

Constable Politely Asked Us to Stop

The police kept an eye on us until they felt that we had made our point. Then a constable politely asked us to stop, implying that what we were doing could be construed as public mischief.

The local papers interviewed a few of us. Their photographers took pictures of the painted shadows and ran them in their next editions. 

Our paint was only whitewash. We went back and scrubbed our graffiti from the streets a week later.

We Respected Each Other’s Positions and Played Our Parts

Our group, the police and the press all understood their roles. Mutual respect shone through on all sides, and we all played our parts. There were no flying bottles, no pepper spray and no attacks against journalists.

I think that’s why I’m so troubled by events in the United States over the last few weeks. It goes without saying that Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis is an outrage.

Outrage is what Americans of all backgrounds are feeling as a result. People have taken to the streets across the country, with many of the protests turning violent.

US Policing Policy Made Outbursts Highly Predictable

I’m against violence, and the US riots are no exception. I will mention, though, that policing policy in America made the outbursts highly predictable.

Commentators have covered that angle of the story in excruciating detail. We’re going to deal with a related issue – the attacks against journalists covering the demonstrations.

Since the disturbances began on May 27, the US Press Freedom Tracker and the Committee to Protect Journalists have documented more than 300 attacks against journalists in 33 states. I could pull a full range of examples from press reports, but to me, the most blatant illustration is what happened in Washington DC.

Military Police Officers Arrived Unannounced

To enable a photo op by the US president, police forced peaceful demonstrators to clear the streets in an area near the White House. Half an hour before a declared 7 pm curfew, military police officers arrived unannounced.

They started unleashing tear gas and firing rubber bullets. Then, they formed a line and charged at the crowd, making no distinction between protestors and journalists covering protests.

 Among the media group were Australian reporter Amelia Brace and her cameraman Tim Myers. Rubber bullets struck both of them repeatedly.

Officer Physically Assaulted Him with His Shield

Trying to stop Myers from filming, an officer punched him and physically assaulted him with his riot shield. I guess the police didn’t realize that they were broadcasting live on Australia’s 7News Channel. 

Myers picked himself up and kept transmitting. Of course, his video has gone viral.

As the video plays out, Brace says the police want to keep her and her colleagues from seeing what’s going on. As she breathlessly tells her anchors in Australia, “The goal of the police is that we do not see the violence and destruction like we did last night.” 

Only the Highest Profile of the Widespread Attacks

This confrontation is only the highest-profile of the widespread episodes of attacks against journalists during the reaction to the death of George Floyd. These include more than 49 arrests, 192 assaults (160 by the police), and 42 incidents of newsroom and equipment damage.

Ironically, these incidents have prompted international condemnation against the United States from other countries, including Australia, Turkey and Germany.

Americans, especially conservative Americans, like to think of their country as Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill.” Reagan explained his metaphor by saying that American was “a beacon” to everyone around the world who loved freedom.

Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City Upon a Hill”

There’s no sign of that city on a hill these days. All of our freedoms are vital, but press freedom is central because it defends all the others. Democracy requires an informed public.

That’s why four French journalists started the group Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) in 1984. Based in Paris and modelled on Medecins Sans Frontiers, the group issues daily reports on freedom of information in oppressive countries like China, Eritrea, Haiti and Syria.  

Reagan’s “beacon of freedom” is now the subject of a press freedom campaign by RSF. They’ve issued an open letter with support from sixteen other human rights groups to all US governors and mayors.

“Immediately Halt Abusive Actions Against Journalists”

The letter condemns attacks against journalists and demands that those leaders “immediately halt abusive police actions against journalists.” They also call for “swift measures toward accountability for violations of the First Amendment during violent crackdowns on peaceful protests.”

RSF goes on to tell the leaders that “The majority (of the attacks) were deliberate, unprovoked physical attacks on clearly identified journalists, including foreign journalists.” For example, our Australian cameraman Tim Myers was wearing a vest with “PRESS” printed on it and was holding a large camera on his shoulder when police knocked him to the ground.

Dokhi Fassihian is the Executive Director of RSF USA. The letter quotes him as saying, “Ultimately, governors and mayors across our country must take responsibility for these unprecedented attacks on press freedom by law enforcement operating under their authority.”

“Country Now Faces Three Massive Crises”

Thomas O. Melia, Washington Director of PEN America, made a veiled reference to the US president in his contribution. He said, “As our country now faces three massive crises simultaneously, and is doing so without effective national leadership, it is all the more important that mayors and governors show the way.”

The letter concludes with four demands:

  • Stop the attacks on journalists
  • Affirm the role of a free press
  • Ensure the safety of journalists
  • Establish independent commissions to investigate attacks on journalists

One source of Americans’ pride in their country is their belief that the US leads the world when it comes to freedom of the press. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws against “the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

American Press Freedom Ranks 45th Out of 180 Countries

Despite its revered First Amendment, America places 45th out of 180 countries in RSFs World Press Freedom Index. The US ranks behind Burkina Faso and Ghana in the standings.

Meaningful democracy depends on public participation. The public can’t participate in any practical way unless everyone has freedom of expression. It’s the only tool they have to find out what the issues are and who to select as their leaders.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Australian New Crew Struck by Police on Live TV
Journalist Incidents Covering Floyd Protests
RSF and 19 other groups call on US governors and mayors to ensure safety of journalists
2020 World Press Freedom Index
Human Rights Call to Action from UN Chief
United States Backsliding on Death Penalty
Infodemic: “Dangerous Outbreak of Misinformation”

One thought on “Attacks Against Journalists: America’s Free Press?

  1. I remain concerned that after all the demonstrations nothing will change in the end. I’ve seen so many marches, and participated in many as well, only to see no end to the riots and abuse. Am I getting old, tired and feeling licked? Please prove me wrong.

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