US: Journalists Face Challenges
22 January 2019 BY JOURNALIST SUPPORT COMMITTEE (JSC)
The hostility of the current Trump administration to any media which is critical of its policies represents an existential threat to democracy in the United States of America. Freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are together the cornerstone on which free, democratic nations are built. This trend towards repression of journalists in the USA predates the current administration but under the Trump presidency, it has accelerated. The detention without charge of US citizen Marzieh Hashemi, a presenter for the Iranian English language channel Press TV, is a sign of just how far the situation has deteriorated and suggests that the climate for journalists may deteriorate further. Such concerns have been voiced by the British freedom of speech organisation Article 19. 1 In 2017 as many as 34 journalists were arrested in the USA and in 2018 11 journalists were arrested 42 were attacked, 5 were killed whilst 21 were subpoenaed according to U.S. Press Freedom tracker.2
Black Lives Matter emerged in July 2013 in opposition to systemic racism and police brutality against African American's in the USA, the US authorities responded to this movement with militarised policing and a harsh crackdown on the journalists covering these protests. Ryan Kailath an Indian-American journalist was covering a protest for National Public Radio, he was arrested whilst retreating from the protests as they began to turn violent – the police were insistent that he was African American and did not accept his explanation that he was a journalist. They transferred him between six locations, strip-searched him, subjected him to a medical and mental health screening and put him in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. The following morning, he found out from another inmate who learnt from the newspaper that his charge was 'obstruction of a highway.' Fortunately, the charges were dropped within the same week, but this heavy-handed response to journalists covering protests is nevertheless a cause of significant psychological distress and trauma. According to Index on Censorship two other professional journalists were arrested at that protest on the same charges of obstruction of a highway, “WAFB (a CBS-affiliated TV station for Baton Rouge) assistant news editor Chris Slaughter, who was clearly identified by his staff shirt and media credentials, and Breitbart News reporter Lee Stranahan”.3 Other journalists arrested at other Black Lives Matter protests in the period of July 2016 to November 2016 included Carlet Cleare and Justin Carter of Wham TV, Dan Hesse from the newspaper Mountain Xpress and the reporters Jason Silverstein and EJ Fox.
In 2016 during the latter months of the Obama administration in the State of North Dakota, there were large scale protests to oppose the Keystone XL oil pipeline on the grounds that it presented a huge environmental hazard and a significant violation of the land rights of indigenous Americans. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was detained in September 2016 for exposing on film the use of pepper spray and attack dogs by guards working for Dakota Access LLC employed to disperse protestors.4 Documentary journalist Deia Schlosberg was arrested on October 11, 2016, after filming a protest at the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline in Walhalla, North Dakota. She was threatened with up to 45 years in jail, these charges were suspended and eventually dropped. Lindsey Grayzel and Carl Davis, also documentary makers, were also arrested on that day at a related protest in North Dakota and they were held for 24 hours. In January 2017 photojournalist Tracie Williams was also arrested whilst covering the protests relating to the Keystone XL oil pipeline in North Dakota.5 Aside from these cases, many other journalists were caught up in the crackdown on the Standing Rock protests, where more than 800 activists, including citizen journalists, were charged with crimes over the 11 month period from the establishment of the first protest camp to the eviction of the last.
In Arkansas, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a law in 2017 that public entities must sign a contractual agreement that they will not boycott Israel. The Arkansas Times is a weekly newspaper which ran advertisements for the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College which is a public entity and therefore meant that the newspaper was subjected to the law that meant they could no longer decide to boycott Israel without paying a 20% tax on any advertisements for a public entity. This is despite the well documented human rights abuses of Palestinian's which has included the targeting of journalists and media organisations.6 The CEO of the Arkansas Times Alan Leveritt has objected to this as a violation of freedom of speech and with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, they are currently suing Arkansas state, attempting to overturn this law, on the basis of the First Amendment that protects freedom of speech in the US constitution.7
As we have seen from the examples included here from the protests at Standing Rock to the Black Lives Matter movement the attack on the freedom of the press is part of an attack on campaigning and activism more broadly. Whether in the Standing Rock campaign for environmental and indigenous American's rights versus the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, or the Black Lives Matter struggle for rights of African American's versus the criminal justice system or for the campaign to boycott Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian's there is an increasingly hostile environment for journalists and media organisations reporting on these issues in the USA. In the interests of countering corruption and holding power to account the freedom for journalists to work without fear of reprisal is absolutely essential. The powers with which the US security state can persecute journalists have grown considerably in the last decade with the passing of acts such as the National Defense Authorisation Act which allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens.
Regardless of this downhill trend, on the national and international level freedom of speech is enshrined in laws that the US government has pledged to, so, therefore, must, act in accordance with. The First Amendment of the US Constitution declares that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In international law Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which the US has been a signatory since 1948 declares that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This same declaration on freedom of expression is found in Article 13 of the American Convention of Human Rights (ACHR) of which the USA has been a signatory of since 1966 as a member of the regional Organisation of American States.8
The current approach of the USA to freedom of speech exists in contradiction to both the US constitution,9 the UDHR10 and the ACHR.11 The Journalist Support Committee calls on the government of the USA: to review its conduct towards journalists in recent years, to halt this trend towards the censorship and persecution of journalists, and guarantee full protection of freedom of speech as the cornerstone of democracy.