Highlights from a year fighting for free press

July 6, 2021 12:00

The United States has entered its 246th year as one of the world’s longest sustaining democracies. As we emerge from our July 4th festivities, many Americans will move from celebrating the red, white and blue to a return to self-imposed entrenchment in their red, purple and blue political and ideological cocoons.

That does not bode well for our constitutional republic, or for those who have heeded the call of the First Amendment’s admonition that America not only has a free press, but that there is an accompanying implied requirement that journalists have a sacred duty to serve the public by seeking and reporting the truth.

Contrary to what many predicted, or hoped, threats to press freedom have not abated since the change of administrations in our nation’s capital. 

2021 has been incredibly busy for RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment initiative. We have been active in Congress, the courts and several states working hard to preserve and protect citizens’ need to know what’s going on in their government, their courts and their communities.

For months now, we have been working with key Congressional aides on our top legislative priorities, the Journalist Protection Act (which would make it a federal crime to assault a journalist) and the Right to Record Police Act (which would make it unambiguously clear that citizens, including journalists, have a right to record the activities of law enforcement). Both bills are expected to be introduced later this year.

We have also endorsed, and pledged our full-throated advocacy, for the PRESS Act, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and expected to be introduced any day now in the House, which would create a federal shield law. Currently, most states have laws in place that protect journalists from having to reveal the identities of confidential news sources. The PRESS Act would make such protections the law of the land.

In addition to that, here are some of the things we have accomplished during the first half of 2021:

  • After the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, we demanded more transparency from federal law enforcement, helped compel the Justice Department to prosecute crimes that were committed against journalists that day, and fought for live streaming of all criminal proceedings in US District Courts.
  • We helped fight successfully in a DC federal court to compel the National Park Service to stop charging fees for documentarians and other photojournalists who shoot video in our national parks.
  • In Congress, we supported the Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act and the Global Press Freedom Act, which would, respectively, reduce foreign aid to nations that persecute journalists and establish a State Department ambassador-at-large to promote press freedom around the world.
  • We fought in the Utah Legislature against a bill that prohibits the public release of mugshots. Our position is that journalists, and not the government, should self-regulate the publication of mugshots to protect members of vulnerable populations from potentially harmful publicity.
  • We supported a bill in the Florida Senate that would have classified as hate crimes assaults on members of the news media.
  • We spoke out against President Biden’s decision not to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a US government intelligence report was released confirming MBS’ involvement in the Jamal Khashoggi murder.
  • We successfully advocated in the Kentucky Legislature to remove a clause in a new open records law that would have limited access only to legal residents of the commonwealth.
  • In March, a Des Moines Register journalist was acquitted of criminal charges after she was arrested while covering a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest; we were one of more than 150 press freedom and First Amendment advocates opposing the charges.
  • We advocated against a bill in the Connecticut State Senate that would prohibit news organizations from broadcasting or publishing images from fatal crash scenes until victims’ relatives were notified. It would also prohibit journalists from broadcasting or publishing images of law enforcement officers at crime and accident scenes.
  • We submitted written testimony to a House Judiciary Subcommittee supporting a proposed law that would suspend anti-trust laws for four years so news organizations could work together to negotiate favorable compensation for social media companies who publish news organizations’ stories.
  • We protested a Biden Administration policy that prohibited US Customs and Border Protection, and other federal, officers from speaking to journalists without prior approval from Washington.
  • We wrote directly to HHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas seeking greater journalist access to border processing facilities and Border Patrol officers.
  • We endorsed a bill from Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) that would require cameras and live broadcast/streaming in the US Supreme Court. The bill was later advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • We joined the National Press Photographers Association and New York City press freedom groups in compelling the New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio to strip the NYPD of the power to grant, and summarily revoke, press credentials.
  • We fought a Florida appeals court ruling allowing police to remain anonymous after being involved in officer-involved shootings that result in the injuries or deaths of people of color. The officers claimed they were “victims” in such cases, and thus entitled to have their identities concealed under a state law designed to protect crime victims, not police.
  • The entire world got to see, live the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis. Last year, we worked closely with Minnesota open government advocates to suggest to the judge a framework for allowing live broadcast of the trial without disrupting the proceedings.
  • We protested loudly when officials in Brooklyn Center, MN, barred some reporters from official briefings about the fatal officer-involved shooting of a Black man during the Chauvin trial, which was taking place just a few miles away.
  • Just as we did last year after George Floyd’s murder, we reached out to Gov. Tim Walz (D-MN) to protest police targeting of journalists who were covering demonstrations in Brooklyn Center.
  • Spoke out against a nonsensical order from the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio who ordered news helicopters to stand down during demonstrations celebrating the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict.
  • We spoke out against proposed laws in Missouri, and several other states, that would require news organizations to scrub its digital archives of stories involving criminal charges against any individual who was later acquitted in court. 
  • We joined 100 other press freedom group and media companies that operate local newsrooms in writing to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to ensure that the treatment of journalists be included as part of DOJ reviews of police responses and policies in Minneapolis (post-George Floyd) and Louisville (post-Brionna Taylor).
  • We wrote the FCC urging it to reject a complaint filed by the Baltimore City State’s Attorney seeking the license revocation of a local TV station because a series of investigative reports exposing potential problems in her office.
  • We wrote directly to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) protesting his decision to bar reporters from a signing ceremony for the state’s new election reform law. He allowed exclusive access to a “friendly” national cable news network but prevented all other reporters from covering the event.
  • We spoke out against Idaho prosecutors for issuing a subpoena to a radio news director in a high-profile murder case. Journalists are neutral chroniclers of events of public importance and should not be compelled to act as agents of the state.
  • We protested to White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield about a Biden Administration policy requiring “on background” comments to journalists to be approved in advance.
  • We spoke out when the state of Texas executed a prison inmate but excluded witnesses, including journalists.
  • We urged the State Department and the United Nations to work for the release of American journalist Danny Fenster, who was detained by forces of the coup-led government of Myanmar as he boarded a flight home to the US.
  • We scored a victory in the Washington State Supreme Court, upholding a law allowing journalists to have access to certain public records.
  • We wrote to a bipartisan group of two dozen US Senators and Representatives advocating a bill that would make access to digitized federal court records free to the public. Currently, the courts’ online PACER system charges exorbitant fees.
  • We were consulted by high-ranking attorneys from the House Judiciary Committee ahead of a hearing on possible legislation to greatly restrict the Department of Justice’s ability to subpoena, and keep secret through gag orders, the phone and e-mail records of journalists. We will be submitting written testimony very soon. The issue came to light when DOJ acknowledged that it, during the Trump Administration, had secretly obtained such records from journalists at CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
  • We have also endorsed, and pledged our full-throated advocacy, for the PRESS Act, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and introduced in the House by Reps. Jamie Rasking (D-MD), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and John Yarmuth (D-KY), which would create a federal shield law. Currently, 40 states have laws in place that protect journalists from having to reveal the identities of confidential news sources. The PRESS Act would make such protections the law of the land.

As if all of that hasn’t been keeping us busy, we are also currently working with several press advocacy groups in California, seeking passage of a state law that would protect journalists covering protests and demonstrations. Journalist arrests occur virtually every day in the Golden State, particularly in the city and county of Los Angeles. I’ll spare you the how-the-sausage-gets-made details. Suffice it to say that we are making progress, although incrementally.

Nearly 250 years ago, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident ….”   Sadly, though, nothing about press freedom is self-evident today. 

Another of Jefferson’s admonitions “the only security of all is in a free press,” is a notion that is in peril as we near the halfway point of our nation’s third century.

Know that RTDNA is working hard, every single day, to ensure you are able to perform acts of outstanding responsible journalism to inform your communities.

Here are some ways you can help.



 


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