Report: Arrests of journalists in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2020

Rosemary Ketchum/Pexels

The number of journalists arrested or detained in the United States jumped 1,200 percent in 2020 compared to last year, according to a new report released by the Freedom of the Press Foundation on Monday.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker was founded in 2017 as a repository of press freedom violations in the U.S. Using data compiled by the Tracker this year, the FPF issued the report “U.S. Press Freedom in Crisis: Journalists Under Arrest in 2020,” finding over 1,000 documented cases of press freedom violations.

These violations include arrests, physical attacks, equipment seizure, denials of access and various other actions denying journalists the right to do their jobs in accordance to the First Amendment of the Constitution. In 2019, the Tracker documented 152 such violations.

FPF Advocacy Director Parker Higgins told Little Village in an email, “This report specifically covers arrests of journalists, which is just one category of press freedom violation my colleagues at the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker monitor. The most troubling aspect, to my mind, is that all of these categories have increased up so dramatically in the past year.”

At least 117 journalists have been arrested or detained this year. Forty-three journalists who had been arrested had also been assaulted (“beaten, hit with rubber bullets or other projectiles or covered in chemical agents, like tear gas or pepper spray”) either in the course of covering protests or by law enforcement during or after the arrest. By contrast, the Tracker documented the arrests of nine journalists last year.

Protesters embrace outside of the Minneapolis State Capitol. Friday, June 5. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

Most of the arrests took place during public demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police on May 25, as Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police brutality swept the country. In Iowa, residents of several cities joined nationwide protests condemning Floyd’s death in Ames, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines, Dubuque, Iowa City, Mason City, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Waterloo.

The week of May 29-June 4 resulted in an unprecedented number of journalists arrested with 71 recorded cases, more than the previous three years combined.

Among those arrested was Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri, who was taken into custody on May 31 while covering a Black Lives Matter protest at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines. Despite offering press credentials to police, Sahouri was shot in the face with pepper spray, her hands zip-tied behind her back and arrested for “failure to disperse” and “interference with official acts.” A Register reporter who was also present corroborated Sahouri’s account to their editors.

Sitting in the back of a police transport vehicle, Sahouri recorded a video describing what happened before posting it on Twitter.

“I’m just doing my job as a journalist,” Sahouri said in the video. “I’m just out here reporting as I see.”

Of the 117 journalists arrested in 2020, according to FPF’s report, 16 still face criminal charges. Sahouri is one of those 16. At the time of the report’s release, no police officer has been criminally charged for illegally arresting a journalist.

“One big takeaway is that the trends we highlight in the report are truly nationwide and systematic; this isn’t a case of a few ‘bad cops’ skewing the numbers around the country,” Higgins said. “Any resolutions to the press freedom crisis we’re facing will have to be just as broad.”

The Tracker advisory board includes The Committee to Protect Journalists, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship. CPJ has been working with the Tracker to document the record-breaking number of attacks on journalists, monitoring demonstrations and providing safety advice and direct assistance to journalists.

“We believe that only by holding accountable those who have assaulted or hindered the work of the press do we ensure that reporters can serve the public,” CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna told Little Village in an email.

President Donald Trump points at the press area in the US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids during one of several digs at the media. Wednesday, June 21, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The U.S. ranks 45th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. The organization notes that outgoing President Donald Trump and associates in the federal government have “demonstrated that the United States is no longer a champion of freedom of the press at home or abroad,” adding the “dangerous anti-press sentiment has trickled down to local governments, institutions and the American public.”

When asked if the events witnessed this year have altered public perception regarding the role journalists play and the daily obstacles they confront, Higgins said the events “absolutely affected public perception of journalists and their work.”

“One striking element of a lot of the arrests we cover in this report is that they were documented extensively, and in some cases broadcast live. That these images exist, and that there are so many examples of them from this year alone, has really done a lot to reshape existing narratives about the relationship between police and the press, in particular.”

On Dec. 9, the CPJ participated in a U.S. House Subcommittee hearing on the current threats endangering journalists and their reporting.

“Humans have a right to engage in journalism, and a right to access and exchange news and information, a right that has life and death consequences during a global health pandemic,” CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch told the subcommittee. “We’re grateful that so many members of Congress are active on press freedom, but given the severity of the threats against the press, more must be done.”

Over a dozen other reports of arrests and detentions are still being investigated by the Tracker, which will continue to publish updates.

“Journalists are brave and ready to do their jobs, but it shouldn’t be this dangerous,” Higgins said. “The striking conclusion from this report is that reporters are putting their own safety and well-being on the line in the course of covering important stories, and that police have at times been a real obstacle in that work.”

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