In 2020, journalists have covered a lot. From the ever-changing Coronavirus to the international civil rights movement that we’re watching develop every single day, this media cycle has weighed heavily on both the audience and those covering it.
Although reporting on the frontlines at demonstrations is never an easy task, something is different this time around as Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors flood the streets around the world and more and more members of the media are unconstitutionally targeted by law enforcement.
Despite legislation that protects journalists, more than 430 nationwide press freedom violations have been reported by the US Freedom Tracker since May 26 when BLM protests began. To put that into context, this is a significant increase from last year’s annual number of 89 total reported violations.
It’s also important to note that these attacks have mostly been inflicted by law enforcement, rather than protestors, which has resulted in some journalists getting physically hurt by their crowd control tactics like teargas and rubber bullets. Others have even been arrested, like CNN’s Oscar Jimenez who was handcuffed on air.
But why? Why are journalists being targeted by the police for, in most cases, simply doing their jobs?
It’s a question that Sarah Matthews, Staff Attorney at the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), tells me is “very alarming” and unprecedented.
“These attacks have a detrimental impact on the ability of the press to cover this period of tremendous civil unrest,” Matthews says. “When police are targeting journalists with assault and arrest, and those journalists are complying with the law, this is a clear violation of the first amendment and it’s an affront to the public’s first amendment right to be informed.”
The protections that she refers to are outlined within the 1791 United States Bill of Rights which declare freedom of the press without government restraint. This makes it legal under the constitution for journalists to record and report demonstrations where the public is allowed to be.
But if you’ve ever seen coverage of any kind of protest or been to one in general, you’re probably aware of how chaotic they can be. So what if members of the media are simply casualties within the line of fire who are being confused for protestors at these events?
Many journalists have caught their experiences on camera suggesting otherwise as they clearly state and show their occupational right to be there. In a video of the VICE News correspondent, Michael Anthony Adams, he repeatedly shouts out “I’m press!” to law enforcement who reply that they “don’t care” and begin to spray him and his team with pepper spray.
“It defies explanation. It’s incomprehensible,” Advocacy Director of The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Courtney Radsch tells me. “We have to investigate how and why this is happening.”
She says that anti-press rhetoric over the years has gotten worse with help from President Trump, and that this consistent vilification of the media has contributed to the current conditions and attitudes that we’re seeing towards journalists at these protests. Such rhetoric twists the narrative and allows the people to forget that the media works for them, against oppression, and encourages powerful bodies, like the police, to focus heavily on the media as the enemy and act accordingly without parallel.
The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2018
This hostility that places the people against the media, among other controversial behavior, has left some to criticize Trump as a fascist who may be leading the United States into an authoritarian form of government.
Radsch tells me that she too is “deeply concerned” about this frightening possibility.
“In many cases around the world we’ve seen that attacks on the press and crackdowns on press freedom often precede wider crackdowns on democracy and human rights,” she says.
Matthews agrees too. RCFP defines Trump’s anti-press rhetoric as a sign of “creeping authoritarianism” which points parallels between Latin America’s history that knows this process all too well.
“Having little disregard to the core institutions that protect our democracy is certainly a scene that we see among authoritarian leaders,” Matthews says.
So organizations like RCFP and CPJ are calling toward local and national governments to train law enforcement to avoid targeting journalists while at protests, in order to avoid such a situation.
But ultimately we must mend this relationship between the journalist and the people. At the end of the day, the very infrastructure of journalism dictates itself as the “4th estate,” meaning that the media is just as involved in the system of checks and balances as any other branch of government with the first amendment being our beacon of light and fortitude. If it is the journalist’s moral duty to be skeptical of the power structures in this country, then why are they ridiculed after doing just that and exposing mal-behavior? Would the alternative ignorant, uninformed, population be preferred? Probably, for some people. As a country we must remain vigilant and trust that those who are in power are held accountable.
It’s been a difficult year for everyone in this country and at the end of the day, Radsch says that it’s important to remember that journalists are still people too with lived-in experiences within the communities that they cover.
As a country, we must understand our ordained and protected rights. We must stand firm in them.
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