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Press freedoms in peril: Report details unprecedented attacks in 2020 on journalists in America

A new report draws a “devastating” picture of press freedoms in the United States, finding that 2020 has seen a 1200% increase in the number of journalists arrested compared to 2019.

According to Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), there were 117 arrests or detainments of journalists — a figure that stood at just 9 the year before. The organization used data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker — a project of FPF and the Committee to Protect Journalists — and found 1000 press freedom violations including physical attacks and border stops. “We know of no police officer criminally charged for illegally arresting a journalist,” the report noted.

“This report shows an unprecedented press freedom crisis engulfing the United States,” said Trevor Timm, FPF executive director.

The “most startling statistics,” said the report, occurred in the week after the May 25 police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis. That time frame included 71 journalists arrested while covering protests.

“So many of the journalists arrested in the United States in 2020 were reporting on protests that it was perhaps inevitable reporters would be caught up in the same police techniques typically used to break up demonstrations,” the report stated, and points to the tactic of so-called kettling. “Kettling in particular shows up in nearly two dozen of the arrests and detentions that the U.S Press Freedom Tracker has documented across the country.”

“Time and again,” said the report, “police disregarded press freedom rights when their kettled crowds included journalists.”

The report also draws attention to press violations that occurred in Portland, and “the dangers [that] intensified when, on President Donald Trump’s orders, federal agents were deployed in the city.”

“The Department of Homeland Security tapped protesters’ phones and established ‘intelligence reports’ on journalists who published leaked documents about the agency’s operations,” the report added.

Among the journalists whose harrowing tales were recounted in the report was Grace Morgan. An independent journalist, Morgan was covering the arrest of a protester in Portland when federal agents slammed her to the ground and sprayed her in the eyes with mace.

Beyond abuses associated with journalists covering the national social justice uprising, “the electoral loss by a president who had spent much of his administration vilifying the press sparked one of the biggest spikes in press freedom violations since the first month of the George Floyd protests in May and June,” said the report.

Throughout the year, the report said that many of the arrests were accompanied by police violence. In fact, according to the tracker data, 26% of the arrests included police deploying “unnecessary use of force,” which may include knocking journalists to the ground, pepper-spraying them, or whacking them in the gut with a baton.

Still other journalists faced police violence such as being hit with projectile while reporting before being arrested.

The report further noted that, while many saw their charges dropped, at least 16 journalists — including 10 freelancers — were still facing legal “long-term legal trouble.”

While the tally of journalists arrested dwarfs those of previous years, it may not be exhaustive; the report pointed out that the organization was still sorting through a dozen other possible violations that occurred this year.

“Journalists should not have to worry about being arrested for doing their job, yet across the country police have disregarded their rights on a staggering scale,” added Timm, “We hope this report will spur local, state, and federal officials to act.”

Calling the findings “devastating,” Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the U.S.Press Freedom Tracker, wrote in the report’s foreword, “The courage and commitment of these journalists, arrested or detained for exercising rights promised to them in the Constitution, is anything but a statistic.”

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