By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
So far this year, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force is a founding partner, at least 23 journalists have been arrested merely for trying to do their jobs.
More troubling, criminal charges are still pending for more than half of those journalists; at least 12, to be precise. In the other 11 cases documented by the tracker, police either released journalists once they realized they were, in fact, journalists, or prosecutors filed but later dropped criminal charges.
Particularly disturbing is the fact that two of the 12 reporters still facing criminal charges are accused of felonies and, if convicted, could each spend decades in prison.
Here’s the list of journalists facing criminal charges so far in 2017.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk was arrested, roughed up and pepper sprayed by police while covering civil unrest in St. Louis in mid-September. He is charged with in municipal court with the crime of “failure to disperse.”
- Independent journalist and livestreamer Jon Ziegler was also arrested, roughed up and pepper sprayed during the mid-September St. Louis civil unrest. He, too, faces a municipal “failure to disperse” charge.
- Getty photographer Scott Olson was also arrested and charged with “failure to disperse” during the St. Louis protests.
- Journalist J.B. Nicholas was arrested in August while attempting to ask students at the public Bronx Community College in New York City about the busts of Confederate war generals that are displayed as part of what the school calls its “Hall of Fame.” Nicholas was charged with trespassing.
- Independent photojournalist Tracie Williams still faces misdemeanor charges of “physical obstruction of government function” after being arrested in February near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota while covering a protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
- Sundance Institute filmmaker Jahnny Lee also faces a misdemeanor charge of “physical obstruction of government function” after being arrested in February near the Standing Rock Reservation.
- Another journalist casualty at the February Standing Rock protests is Mic reporter Jack Smith IV. He, too, faces the misdemeanor charge of “physical obstruction of government function.”
- Not only was freelance photojournalist Tonita Cervantes arrested near Standing Rock in February and charged with the misdemeanor “physical obstruction of government function,” police seized phone and professional equipment as evidence.
- Freelance reporter Jenni Monet faces even harsher charges after her arrest in February near Standing Rock. She is charged with two misdemeanors, “criminal trespassing” and “engaging in a riot.”
- Independent journalist Jenifer Stum was arrested near Standing Rock in January. She, too, faces a pair of misdemeanor charges: “criminal trespassing” and “engaging in a riot” merely for filming an anti-pipeline protest on a bridge.
And now we get to the really upsetting cases. On January 20, Inauguration Day, police in Washington, D.C., rounded up more than 230 people when anti-Trump rioting broke out. Several of those arrested were journalists. Most were released, or charged and then had the charges dropped. But the government has apparently decided to make an example of two journalists, each of whom is charged with several felonies.
- At first, independent photojournalist Alexei Wood was charged with only one felony count of rioting. Three months later, a grand jury upped the ante by handing up eight separate felony indictments that could result in more than 70 years in prison: “inciting a riot,” “rioting,” “conspiracy to riot,” and five counts of “destruction of property.” Wood insists he was not participating in the rioting and was simply livestreaming the event in his role as a journalist.
- Then there’s the case of independent journalist Aaron Cantú. He, too, was originally charged with only one felony. But the same grand jury that issued indictments that later charged Wood with eight felonies issued the same eight felony indictments against Cantú as well. He, too, insists he was merely performing his duty as a journalist, but he could face up to 75 years in prison.
"I think this is a sign of the times. The climate of 'fake news,' that journalists are our enemy, as our president has stated, has led to a climate where a security guard or police officer will be hostile to a journalist. And I think that we need to remember the importance of an open and robust free press. Reporters should not be arrested for doing their jobs."
Siegel is right, of course, particularly with regard to journalists not being arrested for doing their jobs. Unfortunately, however, RTDNA does not see the situation getting better any time soon. Our nation is harshly divided from an ideological perspective, and certain leaders too often use journalists and news organizations as tools to further the divide.
Already, consultants for many 2018 U.S. House and Senate campaigns have advised their candidates to attack the news media from the stump next year because it worked so well in 2016 to fire up a certain segment of the population that either doesn’t like, or doesn’t understand the role of, responsible journalism.
Thus far in 2017, in addition to the two dozen or so arrests of journalists, there have been at least 25 physical attacks on journalists, many targeting local reporters and photojournalists, perpetrated by people all along the ideological spectrum. Those who have assaulted journalists this year range from far-right white nationalists and white supremacists, to a congressional candidate who was charged with assault but then got elected anyway, to police officers who are supposed to enforce the law impartially, to far-left self-identifying anarchists.
RTDNA and its Voice of the First America Task Force want you to know one thing: The only antidote to attacks on journalism – whether they come in the form of obstruction, harassment, threats, arrests or assaults – is more and better responsible journalism.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force early this year to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. It is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats to press freedom in America.