Is the press really free in the US?

How the ongoing civil unrest has finally exposed America’s free press facade

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“I can’t breathe.” George Flyod — a black citizen of Minneapolis, Minnesota — uttered these three words moments before he was murdered by a white cop, who knelt on his neck in a bid to arrest him for allegedly using a counterfeit bill on May 25. It has been more than a month since Floyd’s murder, but his words continue pierce through our hearts till date. Whenever and wherever one would witness injustice and oppression, Floyd’s words would reverberate.

What happened after the brutal killing of a black man at the hands of a white cop has unfolded one of the most monumental events in black history. Black people across the US, as well as advocates of human rights and racial justice stepped out to condemn the atrocious structure of policing across the country that discriminates against citizens on the basis of the race.

During times when the world is up against a pandemic, all eyes were now also set on the events that continued to unfold in the US. It was the dedicated reporting of journalists on the ground that made it possible for people around the world to witness the widespread protests and unrest . However, the price paid by these reporters on the ground is something we often overlook as readers and as an audience.

As police across the US lined up against the protestors, journalists continued to do their jobs despite the risks of facing assaults and arrests in the process. Around 80% of reporters and photojournalists covering the protests on the ground have faced violence and intimidation at the hands of the law enforcement, raising questions about the state of press freedom in the US. Between May 26 and June 3, the US Press Freedom Tracker received more than 279 claims of assaults against press personnel on the ground.

Women journalists, too, made up a large part of the ratio and have borne the brunt of being caught in the middle of the disruption. The Coalition For Women In Journalism documented at least 28 cases, where women journalists were subjected to violence while covering these protests on the ground.

On May 29, Linda Tirado — a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis — was hit with foam bullets, while she moved in front of the protestors to photograph the police. Linda was left blinded in one eye with blood dripping all over her face. Despite yelling “I’m press” repeatedly, Linda’s press credentials were ignored by the police. She later filed a suit against the state and city authorities.

Cerise Castle, a radio reporter for KCRW, was shot with rubber bullets by the LAPD. She was reporting while protestors gathered at Beverly and Fairfax in Los Angeles. Cerise also shared that she held a press badge above her head to identify herself as a journalist, but to no avail.

Photojournalist Beth Nakamura was also physically assaulted by police, as she was photographing the demonstrations in Portland, Oregon.

Five Thirty Eight’s senior science reporter Maggie Koerth had a weapon pointed at her by the police in Minneapolis. Maggie was accompanied with another journalist when she was intimidated, and despite yelling “Press, press — we are press” continuously, the two had to hold their badges up and put their hands up in the air.

She shared her ordeal in a tweet that read:

“We just had MPD with support from outside sheriffs point weapons at us while we screamed that we were press. “Shut up!” one yelled back. We are safe.”

These are few of the many occasions during the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests where women journalists were threatened with violence and assaulted while doing their jobs. The demonstrations exposed the so-called idea of press freedom that the US otherwise claims to value. This has also had an impact on the mental health of several women journalists who continue to feel vulnerable to the risks in the field.

On June 2, Canadian journalist Anna Slatz of Rebel News was arrested while covering the unrest in New York. She was physically assaulted by an officer of the NYPD and was detained for two days for “disorderly conduct”.

When talking about the impact of the episode on her mental health, Anna said, “It made me very anxious… I had a very physical reaction to the sight of the NYPD. That carried over into the next night.”

Anna said that she hit the streets for reporting the day after being released and it did not stop her from continuing to work.

“They wanted to scare me out of reporting and being on the street, when I had every right to do both. I felt that if I stayed away, I was letting them win… The best coping mechanism is listening to yourself. It is staying true to what you believe and doing what you think is right in all cases,” she said when responding to CFWIJ.

On the other hand, Donna Bryson — a housing and hunger reporter at Denverite — was not quite sure if she could feel the impact at the moment, as the general emotions around the protests are currently running high. She told CFWIJ that it could take years before it becomes more clear, as her mental health currently does not feel affected.

Given the lack of safety, security, and reporting an event as significant as the #BLM protests, the Atlanta based freelance photojournalist Lynsey Weatherspoon spoke about her mental health and the way she has managed to keep herself grounded.

“The challenge of covering protests is the adrenaline and then the crash, and you have to recognize it when both hit. My dreams have been much more vivid than normal, and cause slight anxiety,” she said.

Lynsey also added that during her off days, she decompresses with meditation and takes care of her plants, along with listening to music.

“I’m recognizing that I will need to speak with my therapists soon, but my coping process has been healthy for me this far, she said.

Documentary filmmaker and photographer Brooke Herbert shared her concerns about the safety of journalists while covering the ongoing demonstrations.

“Journalists have been targeted during this movement and while I don’t want to take the focus away from what the movement is about, it is also important to note the many ways journalists and photographers are being mistreated, targeted, and prevented from doing their work safely,” she said.

Brooke also spoke about the emotional turmoil of seeing so many people in pain.

“But it’s also been a beautiful movement, with so many people joining together to fight injustice,” she told CFWIJ.

If journalists — particularly women journalists — working on the frontlines continue to be subjected to violence for their reporting, it would not take long for them to rally for freedom of the press. It is pertinent that a country that prides itself in upholding human rights, must do more to ensure the safety and security of those who are only trying to inform the public as part of their job.

The fact that the US Constitution protects freedom of the press in the First Amendment, these attacks and arrests of journalists working on the ground — despite the risks to their safety and health, given the situation of Covid-19 in the country — makes for an apt example of what hypocrisy looks like.

This story was originally written for Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism

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