RTDNA urges officials to 'reverse course' on anti-news behavior

May 19, 2017 07:00

RTDNA today joined the National Press Club and several other media organizations in calling on government and other public officials to tone down the anti-news media rhetoric that has led to an increased number of assaults – verbal and physical – and arrests targeting reporters.
“Reckless statements by politicians, most notably the president of the United States, give forces who don’t understand or don’t like a free press permission to harass, threaten and even physically harm reporters,” the statement says.
See the full text of the statement below.
Since launching its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force in March, RTDNA has heard from several of its members about problems local broadcast and digital journalists are encountering in the current political and ideological environment while trying to fulfill their Constitutionally-guaranteed responsibility to practice responsible journalism.
Additionally, this week, a credentialed reporter for CQ Roll Call was manhandled by security guards and then ejected while trying to ask FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly questions in the public hallway of public building. On May 9, a credentialed reporter for Public News Service was arrested while asking questions of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in a public hallway at the West Virginia State Capitol.
“Above all, reporters are representatives of the public. Part of their job – no, their duty – is to ask questions of public officials,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Incoming Executive Director, who is spearheading the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force.
“When those officials, or anyone who doesn’t like the news media for whatever reason, interfere with trustworthy efforts to carry out that responsibility, they are obstructing the public’s right, and need, to know the truth,” Shelley said.
Here is the National Press Club statement:

Our organizations, all of which advocate for journalists in the U.S. and across the globe, believe we must sound the alarm about what happened this week to veteran Washington reporter John M. Donnelly.While covering a meeting of the Federal Communications Commission for his employer, CQ Roll Call, Donnelly was pinned against a wall by security forces when he tried to ask a post-press conference question of departing commissioners. He later was forcibly evicted from the public building — despite clearly identifying himself as a member of the press and displaying the Capitol Hill press credential that is widely acknowledged by security forces throughout Washington.  The security guard who ejected Donnelly challenged him because he did not believe Donnelly should be asking questions after the official press conference has concluded.
We cannot dismiss this as a random case of over-zealous security because of the context in which it occurred.

Reckless statements by politicians, most notably the president of the United States, have given forces who don't understand or don't like a free press permission to harass, threaten and even physically harm reporters. A credentialed journalist in West Virginia now faces criminal charges for his efforts to question a member of President Trump's cabinet while he walked through the state capitol building.  There, too, the cabinet member excused the actions of law enforcement because the reporter was "not in a press conference."  The Radio Television Digital News Association is reporting increased acts of hostility against reporters and camera people, both by security personnel and members of the public.

We acknowledge that many public figures have legitimate security concerns (in part because of the polarization created or exacerbated by the toxic rhetoric that all too many of them employ). But this should never be used at an excuse to restrain or muzzle credentialed members of the media, or restrict their access to people in power.  The First Amendment is not limited to official press conferences, and public officials may not use law enforcement to shield themselves from tough questions in public places.  Such restrictions are anathema to a free press and the public it serves.

At a National Press Club appearance Thursday, the distinguished Venezuelan journalist Marcel Granier described his troubled country as "without institutions." Ominously, he dated the beginning of Venezuela's downward spiral to the late President Hugo Chavez's steady, insidious stream of attacks on the press.

Secrecy by security cannot become the new norm of civil society. We call on public figures to recognize the dangerous path we are on and to reverse course. Democracy depends upon it.

Barbara Cochran, president
National Press Club Journalism Institute

Jeff Ballou, president
National Press Club

Sandra Fish, president
Journalism and Women’s Symposium

Mike Cavender, executive director
Radio Television Digital News Association

Melissa Lyttle, president
National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)

Craig Aaron, president & CEO
Free Press

Bryan Pollard, president
Native American Journalists Association

Lynn Walsh, national president
Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)

Mark Hamrick, president
Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW)

George Freeman, executive director
Media Law Resource Center, Inc.

Josh Hatch, president
Online News Association

Delphine Halgand, North America director​
Reporters Without Borders

Mizell Stewart III, president
American Society of News Editors

Jason Zaragoza, executive director
Association of Alternative Newsmedia

Jo Ellen Kaiser, executive director
The Media Consortium

Sandy Johnson
National Press Foundation