Over the past few years, authorities in many countries have become increasingly bold in their attacks on journalists, especially those who work in alternative media. Julian Assange, who began his extradition hearing at London’s Old Bailey court after a four month delay this past Monday, has become a powerful symbol of the hypocrisy of western states that claim to champion a free press.
A common argument made by centrist and rightwing leaders since Wikileaks embarrassed the American government by releasing documents leaked by Chelsea Manning in 2010 is that someone like Assange, who faces up to 175 years in prison if sent to the United States, is not a ‘professional’ journalist and thus not afforded the same protections that apply to those who toil in corporate news rooms. Even more speciously, the current Secretary of State has argued that the country’s 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to the publisher because he’s Australian.
Worse still, in representative democracies now governed by so-called populists of the right, leaders routinely call stories they don’t like ‘fake news’ and demonize outlets and reporters critical of them at every opportunity. Some, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, even personally threaten individual journalists for asking uncomfortable questions.
At the state and local level here in North America, current attacks by authorities, not only on journalists but on the right to free assembly, have tended to be more physical in nature. While we’ve seen similar behavior on the part of police in confronting the press at anti-pipeline protests and other actions throughout the continent over the past decade, the context of a widespread Black Lives Matter uprising in the United States this year and the politically motivated hysteria of the far right in reaction to it has led to what appears at some times like targeted, and at others like indiscriminate violence against journalists covering the protests, in some cases leading to serious injuries.
Thanks to the work of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, it’s possible to see a troubling trend line over the course of the current U.S. president’s term. As reported by the group, there were a total of 144 attacks on press freedom in all of 2017 while, “As of Sept. 1, the Tracker has confirmed 238 press freedom violations — including physical assaults, arrests, and equipment searches and seizures — more than three quarters of which occurred while journalists were documenting the Black Lives Matter protests.”
This impunity on the part of local authorities, encouraged by the country’s president and many of his surrogates, was on display on a national news network on May 29th in Minneapolis. As he was reporting on the protests following the murder of George Floyd, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, who is African American, was arrested on camera by the city’s police.
Jimenez, a veteran reporter based in Chicago, previously covered the trials of the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and was nominated for an individual Emmy award when employed by local Baltimore station WBAL, where he worked prior to taking a job as a correspondent for CNN in 2017.
It’s hard to argue that Jimenez’s arrest didn’t to some degree come about as the result of bias. More so after it was reported by the Guardian a few days later that, “another of CNN’s correspondents, Josh Campbell, who is white, was reporting about a block away from Jimenez. He said police were “polite” when they approached him to ask him which outlet he was with, and they told him: “OK, you’re good.”
Soon after Jimenez’s release, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit in Minnesota to put an end to what it claimed was the “unconstitutional targeting” of journalists during the protests.
As an ACLU attorney said in a statement about the suit, “We are facing a full-scale assault on the First Amendment freedom of the press. We will not let these official abuses go unanswered. This is the first of many lawsuits the ACLU intends to file across the country. Law enforcement officers who target journalists will be held accountable.”
Rather than being something unique to the United States and its current political scene, examples of this kind of bias in the policing of some journalists as opposed to others is also demonstrated by the ongoing case of Karl Dockstader, a journalist and radio host from Oneida Nation of the Thames in the Canadian province of Ontario, who has been charged with mischief and violating a court imposed injunction as a result of his reporting from an indigenous protest camp established on a construction site south of Canada’s largest city, Toronto.
While journalists in Canada have fewer protections under the law than those south of the border, exceptions for press covering protests by the country’s indigenous people have been carved out as recently as 2019, when a decision from the Supreme Court of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador found, “An injunction can be a very blunt instrument. Unless carefully crafted in its scope and judiciously applied in its enforcement, it risks wrapping within its purview persons who were not part of the mischief to which the original injunctive remedy was directed and also risks unnecessarily trenching upon such other important constitutional and legal values like freedom of association, freedom of the press and, in appropriate cases like the present one, the protection of rights pertaining to indigenous interests.”
No charges were brought against any other reporter at what is called the 1492 Land Back Lane protest encampment that Dockstader was covering, leading one to the suspicion that like Jimenez in Minneapolis, his identity plays a role in the case being made by Ontario police against him.
As Dockstader told Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, “I never thought I was going to have to sit my 10- and 12-year-old daughters down in our living room … and talk to them about how their dad was arrested. That’s a cycle of violence that I am trying to break as an Indigenous man and I thought that an honorable career like journalism would give me an opportunity to break the cycle of violence, not to bring it into my own house … It was just earth-shattering.”
Back in the U.S., less troubling in terms of possible motivation on the part of authorities but arguably more worrying in terms of tactics, was the arrest and alleged assault in Seattle on July 1st, of U.K. Independent correspondent Andrew Buncombe as he covered the dismantling of the CHOP (Capital Hill Organized Protest) autonomous zone in the city.
Still, outlets like CNN and the Independent have the resources and reputation to fight back against such overreach on the part of police, but what of those journalists without this kind of institutional backing?
One such reporter is Eddy Binford-Ross, a student covering the protests for her high school paper, the Clypion, where she is also editor in chief covering the protests in Portland. Though wearing a helmet and other tags to clearly identify herself as press, Binford-Ross has faced tear gas and other ‘non-lethal’ projectiles used by police over the course of her work this summer.
As Binford Ross explained to the SPLC (Student Press Law Center) in an interview, “It’s very concerning to me that they seem to be targeting the press and, at the very least, disregarding the distinction between who is a member of the press and who is a protester. Sometimes, when I identify myself as a journalist, they’ll say ‘okay I’ll leave you alone,’ but normally it doesn’t seem to phase them.”
In normal times, we often see a gradual chipping away of basic rights like we’ve seen in the trials of Julian Assange, where a narrative, some of it true, a lot of it based on character assassination and outright lies, has been built over time, denying the publisher the presumption of innocence. In extraordinary circumstances, like after 9/11 or in our current era of crisis, norms are smashed to bits instead of merely being degraded in individual cases over time, with consequences that are often far ranging and permanent.
Although it is in many ways a conservative document, the United States constitution set a new standard for the world in establishing the 4th Estate as a kind of unofficial branch of government tasked with informing the public, this is why oligarchs and politicians have been trying, with some success, to either terrorize or control its practitioners ever since.