RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force are calling on prosecutors in Washington, D.C., Texas, Virginia and the Dakotas to drop criminal charges against eight journalists who began the new year still facing possible fines and jail time just for doing their jobs.
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, five of the eight journalists were arrested while covering the Dakota Access Pipeline protest at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas in early 2017. One was arrested in October while covering the campaign of then-Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie. One was arrested while covering Inauguration Day rioting in Washington.
All of these arrests and criminal charges are outrageous and unacceptable. Truly baffling, however, is the eighth journalist on the list, Priscilla Villarreal of Laredo, Texas, who faces a felony “misuse of official information” charge merely for publishing the name of a Border Patrol agent who had committed suicide before the Laredo Police Department made the information public. She was arrested for this “crime” in December.
As incredible as that seems, consider the case of Aaron Cantú, an independent journalist who was chronicling the rioting that broke out in our nation’s capital on Inauguration Day one year ago. He was arrested, along with 229 others – including eight other journalists – when D.C. Metropolitan Police surrounded rioters (and the journalists) and then arrested them for failing to disburse when they had nowhere to go.
Charges were either never filed, or were filed and then dropped, against all of the journalists taken into custody on January 20, 2017, except for Cantú and live streamer Alexei Wood. Each was originally charged with one felony count. After press freedom groups demanded the charges be dismissed, the Trump administration Justice Department octupled down, getting a grand jury to hand up eight felony charges against them.
Wood was acquitted at trial in late 2017, but prosecutors are going forward with the charges against Cantú. His trial is scheduled for later this year. If convicted, he could face more than 70 years in prison.
As the Tracker, the archive of record for threats against press freedom in the U.S., states, 33 journalists were arrested last year across the country. The largest number of arrests, ten, happened in St. Louis, where police systematically arrested reporters covering race-related protests in September and October.
The arrests stopped only after a federal judge issued an injunction ordering police to stop “punishing” protestors and journalists by arresting and, in several cases, pepper spraying them in the face after they’d been handcuffed and couldn’t possibly pose a threat to officers.
Second on the let’s-arrest-journalists hit parade was Washington on Inauguration Day, where nine were hauled to jail. Third was Standing Rock, with six arrests.
Even more disturbing, the Tracker documented 44 physical assaults on 43 journalists in 2017. Most of them, 30, were assaulted by protestors and counter protestors during episodes of civil unrest. Six were assaulted by white nationalists, white supremacists and counter protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the Unite the Right Rally in August.
Some physical assaults of journalists occurred at the hands of police, particularly in St. Louis. And two of the assaults were committed by politicians, both in May: An Alaska state senator slapped a reporter during an interview and, more infamously, then-congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed Guardian U.S. reporter Ben Jacobs. Gianforte was arrested and pleaded guilty to assault charges, but was nonetheless elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
What the Tracker is not designed to document are the countless forms of obstruction, harassment and threats against responsible journalists’ efforts to perform their constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth.
The obstruction most often comes from local and state elected and other public officials, or in the courts. The harassment and threats most often come from people who feel enabled to lash out against reporters and photojournalists because the leader of the free world has called them the “enemy of the American people” and labels their work as “fake news.”
Alarmingly, a new Gallup survey of 19,000 Americans conducted for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation shows, among other things, that the “fake news” moniker is working among many in the president’s political and ideological base:
- Four in 10 Republicans consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be “fake news.”
All of this paints a pretty gloomy picture about the state of journalism in today’s United States of America. But there is hope. So many news organizations have taken the advice the I and others have given: The only antidote to attacks on journalism is more and better journalism.
Newsrooms in all 50 states and the District of Columbia are serving the public, despite all of the obstacles in their way, by uncovering corruption and shining a light on problems that would otherwise go unnoticed. Much of this responsible journalism serves as a catalyst for positive change.
Don’t get discouraged. Watch your back, but don’t back down. And if you need a little inspiration, take a gander at last year’s national Edward R. Murrow Award winners.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. Reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.