RSF and 20 other groups call on US governors and mayors to ensure safety of journalists; investigate First Amendment violations during protests

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The following statement to governors and mayors across the United States was signed by 21 press freedom, journalism, and human rights organizations, including: Reporters Without Borders, PEN America, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, ARTICLE 19, Society of Professional Journalists, Index on Censorship, International Women’s Media Foundation, the Coalition For Women In Journalism, the National Press Club, NPC Journalism Institute, IPI North American Committee, the National Association of Black Journalists, the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, the Native American Journalists Association, the Arab and Middle East Journalist Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Press Photographers Association, Free Press, and Military Reporters and Editors.

On June 5, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and 20 other organizations called on governors and mayors in states across the United States that have seen a pattern of abuse against journalists, including Governors Tim Walz of Minnesota, Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Mayors Jacob Frey of Minneapolis, Muriel Bowser of Washington DC, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Bill de Blasio of New York City, to immediately halt abusive police actions against journalists during protests in the past week, and to take swift measures toward accountability for violations of the First Amendment during violent crackdowns on peaceful protests.  

Police have arrested and assaulted journalists all over the country as they cover the protests against the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, on May 25. There have been at least 300 incidents since May 26, the majority committed by police, including more than 49 arrests, 192 assaults (160 by the police), and 42 incidents of newsroom and equipment damage, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. These incidents have happened in 33 states throughout the country, with the majority in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York City, Louisville, Detroit, Denver and Philadelphia. 

These abuses have affected independent journalists and those affiliated with a cross-section of news organizations. The majority were deliberate, unprovoked physical attacks on clearly identified journalists, including foreign journalists. CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his news crew were handcuffed and arrested in Minneapolis early in the morning on May 29. A freelance journalist who was shot by police with a rubber bullet in the eye in Minneapolis that same day is not likely to regain her vision. Another in Indiana also lost his eye. Police aggressively grabbed and detained a Huffington Post reporter in New York on May 30, despite his being clearly credentialed as a journalist. Others have been sprayed with tear gashit by rubber bullets and shoved to the ground.

“Ultimately, governors and mayors across our country must take responsibility for these unprecedented attacks on press freedom by law enforcement operating under their authority. The attacks on journalists in the United States are an assault on democracy and cannot go ignored,” said Dokhi Fassihian, Executive Director of RSF USA. “There is truly no justification for this pattern of violence and abuse against journalists covering events of such clear public interest. Immediate steps should be taken toward accountability and to amend these wrongs.”

“As our country now faces three massive crises simultaneously, and is doing so without effective national leadership, it is all the more important that mayors and governors show the way,” said Thomas O. Melia, Washington Director of PEN America. “Protecting working journalists who are getting vital news to their viewers, readers and listeners, is a necessary first step.”

As a former reporter and editor at the Washington Post, I have been struck in particular by the extent to which journalists have been attacked and harassed by law enforcement authorities while simply trying to do their job covering the Black Lives Matter protests,” said Mike Abramowitz, President of Freedom House. “Anyone who has ever practiced journalism knows you have to have a thick skin, but nobody should expect to be physically threatened  in the course of reporting a story. The incidents of reporters being arrested  represent, in my view, a shocking infringement on our robust First Amendment protections. Those behind these arrests should be held accountable.

Attacks on journalists threaten freedom of expression and assembly and are a direct assault on democracy,” said Laura Pitter, Deputy Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Governors and mayors across the US simply must do more to ensure journalists covering these historic protests can do their jobs safely and account for the attacks against journalists by police that have taken place already.”

Our organizations are calling on governors and mayors to take immediate steps to restore public confidence and establish an official public record of incidents to inform accountability for violent acts against the press. These steps should include:

  • An immediate halt to arrests and assaults on members of the press. 
  • Public affirmation of the vital and protected role of a free press.
  • A commitment to ensure the safety of journalists—including professional reporters as well as community and citizen journalists—during protests and in other interactions with law enforcement.
  • Swift establishment of independent commissions in each state or locality to investigate and record all assaults, arrests and damage to journalists’ equipment by police officers during these protests. Commissions should be tasked with making specific recommendations on redress, reform and training for law enforcement on their legal requirements when interacting with the press.

The United States ranks 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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