The power of journalism is the reason why elite individuals have difficulty suing for libel, why freedom of the press is guaranteed in most democracies, and why events like the printing of the Watergate Scandal remain public knowledge to this day. Journalism stands as a firm defense against corruption within higher powers. When officials begin to chip at that defense by suppressing the press, the balance of democracy becomes jeopardized.
In the wake of protests against police brutality, an alarming amount of journalists have been assaulted, arrested, or otherwise prevented from doing their job. In the year 2020 alone, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented 416 assaulted journalists, 109 pieces of damaged equipment, and 139 detained journalists. Most of these incidents took place while press members recorded protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black individuals.
Kristen McCuddin, the managing editor of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, claimed that the numbers from the past year have been “unlike [anything] we’ve seen in the Tracker’s entire history,” especially in comparison to 2019 where only nine journalists were detained. “It’s really amazing what journalism has gone through this year [in] being furloughed [from] covering some of the hardest stories.”
These so-called “hard stories” involved the assaults and arrests that took place during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests which threatened the livelihoods of numerous journalists. On June 1st, freelance photojournalist Robert Spangle was arrested in Los Angeles, California. On August 29th, independent reporter Garrison Davis was shoved by a police officer while filming a protest in Portland, Oregon. On September 8th, photojournalist Brian Feinzimer was shot with crowd-controlling projectiles in Los Angeles. These are just three of many stories and examples of journalists who experienced unlawful arrests and cases of violence in the past year alone.
Despite many of these protests having long since concluded, 13 of the 139 detained journalists found themselves facing charges in 2021. Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was one of those journalists, going on trial in March of 2021 with accusations of failing to disperse and interfering with official acts. The trial persisted despite videographic evidence and witnesses’ testimonies proving that Sahouri informed officers of her being a reporter. Thanks to organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International staunchly defending Sahouri’s case, all charges were eventually dropped in the end. However, the fact that this trial had happened at all to begin with “is a violation of free press rights and a miscarriage of justice,” as the Des Moines Register’s Editorial Board stated. The First Amendment in the United States Constitution most notably extends freedom of speech to all press members, particularly in the context of public situations. As seen in Sahouri’s case, this right is being obstructed when law enforcement officials detain reporters and lie by claiming that reporters aren’t properly identifying themselves on the scene.
Several other such incidents have extended to this year as well, with 35 journalists having been assaulted and 29 having been arrested. Most notably, CNN producer Carolyn Sung made headlines when it was discovered that she had been detained in Hennepin County Jail on April 17th. Sung had been attempting to cover the Minnesota protests against the shooting of Daunte Wright when she was grabbed by her backpack and thrown to the ground by police officers despite complying with dispersal orders and not showing any signs of resistance. She later became one of many journalists that night who were detained and transported to holding cells.
The Committee to Protect Journalists explains what happened to Sahouri, Sung, and more by claiming that the “polarized political climate, militarized law enforcement, and vitriol toward the media combined during a wave of protests to eradicate norms that once afford journalists police protection.” With the “fake news” rhetoric pushed during the Trump administration still persisting, journalism is now facing an unprecedented level of persecution within a nation that seemingly prioritizes freedom of speech. Amnesty International best describes the importance of journalism and the terrifying nature of the actions committed against journalists: “A free press reporting on the issues that interest us and shape our lives is a key building block of any rights-respecting society.” Without journalists on the scenes of protests, civilians unable to witness said events first-hand would not be aware of the people and intentions behind the demonstrations alongside the violations officials in power commit when attempting to dispel protestors. Without journalists holding officials accountable, abuses of power would run rapt. Without journalists, the legs of democracy will crumble.