When Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was acquitted on misdemeanor charges related to her coverage of a Black Lives Matter protests last summer, she declared (New York Times, 3/10/21) that the jury’s “decision upholds freedom of the press and justice in our democracy.” Amnesty International condemned the charges, and journalists feared that a conviction would be a game-changing attack on the press.
Sahouri’s acquittal still leaves a chilling effect on free speech. Of course, a conviction would have been catastrophic, but merely being charged is an injustice. For months she’s been in legal limbo, and other journalists have spent those months wondering if they’ll be next when they’re caught up in the mix at an anti–police brutality protest. Sahouri, and her newspaper, have had to waste their time and energy on meaningless charges.
And Sahouri, of course, is just one of the more prominent victims in the United States of this rising police repression of journalists covering social justice. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (9/4/20) noted:
Reported press freedom violations endured by journalists during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests alone outpace the annual rates reported by the Press Freedom Tracker. The rate of physical attacks on reporters in the US has spiked dramatically in 2020. The Press Freedom Tracker has documented 185 attacks on the media in 2020, up from 40 in 2019, 42 in 2018 and 50 in 2017, respectively.
A journalist who was blinded in one eye by a police projectile during the George Floyd protests has a lawsuit alleging that the Minneapolis police specifically targeted journalists (Star-Tribune, 2/22/21). The ACLU of Minnesota is pushing a class action lawsuit for violence against journalists. The NYPD attacked AP journalists (New York Post, 6/3/20) during a Black Lives Matter protest last year. The NYPD has also sought to make it easier to strip reporters for press credentials in the wake of last year’s BLM demonstrations (New York Post, 7/15/20).
But this isn’t a problem that began last year. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman faced absurd riot charges for her coverage of the uprising at Standing Rock (Guardian, 10/17/16; FAIR.org, 10/17/16), and another journalist was shot by a rubber-jacketed bullet while covering protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline there (Vox, 11/4/16). The Committee to Protect Journalists (11/11/11) documented police violence and arrests of journalists during the Occupy Wall Street protests.
In this context, journalists need to see the rise of troubling anti-protest bills around the country as anti-journalist bills. Take, for example, a bill in Kentucky, which was a hotbed of Black Lives Matter protests after the police killing of Breonna Taylor, that would make it a crime to insult a police officer during what police deem a riot (WJW, 3/5/21):
Any individual who “accosts, insults, taunts or challenges a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words” or makes “gestures or other physical contact that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person” could be imprisoned for up to three months.
A law this vague has a chilling effect on journalism. Is a reporter who overzealously reminds a police officer that they are entitled to stand near a police line, or protests being shoved too much, breaking the law? That we are even asking these questions, and fear that they won’t be answered until a journalist goes to court on these charges, is intimidating in itself.
Journalists don’t need to embrace the cause of a protest in order to cover it accurately and in full. But they do need to take a side in the fight over the right to protest, because the right to protest the police, the government or a corporation, and the right to cover the protest and the issues around that protest, are inherently related, as journalists are learning.
This is where journalists—and their professional associations and unions—are going to need to throw objectivity and neutrality out the window to protect press freedom. No, journalists should not, in good faith, be expected to employ the standard “he said, she said” tropes to cover anti-protest bills, excessive charges against demonstrators and the use of tear gas, acoustic weapons and rubber bullets against protesters. Police tactics are seemingly indiscriminate. Journalists should see these methods not as methods against a particular political movement, but against the public at large, which includes the press.
Sahouri’s acquittal can be met with a sigh of relief, certainly by her, her colleagues and family. But it’s a rallying cry: Press freedom is under severe attack in the US, along with protest freedom, and anyone who cares about the First Amendment needs to fight back.
“The best way to combat this is through solidarity,” said photojournalist Shay Horse, who was arrested and physically abused by police while covering the protests against Donald Trump’s inauguration (US News & World Report, 6/21/17). Horse added that “supporting each other when we do right by one another seems to me the best course of action.”
This post was originally published on FAIR.