New report from Index on Censorship paints a bleak picture for U.S. press freedom

The press freedom situation in the United States is worsening not only because of President Trump's anti-press rhetoric but because of a constellation of factors including arrests, detainment, lawsuits, physical violence and outright censorship, according to a new report.

The report, released by the London-based Index on Censorship this week, chronicles the recent threats to journalist safety and freedom of expression and takes a holistic view of a worsening press freedom climate.

"Smears about the media made by U.S. President Donald Trump have obscured a wider problem with press freedom in the United States: namely widespread and low-level animosity that feeds into the everyday working lives of the nation’s journalists, bloggers and media professionals," reads the introduction to the report. "This study examines documented reports from across the country in the six months leading up to the presidential inauguration and the months after. It clearly shows that threats to U.S. press freedom go well beyond the Oval Office."

Candidate Trump exhibited anti-press behavior on the campaign trail by blacklisting news organizations, denigrating reporters and encouraging his supporters to berate journalists, and his administration has also occasionally muddled reality by presenting what White House aide Kellyanne Conway dubbed "alternative facts," according to the report.

By branding the press "the enemy of the people," President Trump modeled an anti-press disposition that his counselors have also adopted, according to the report.

'Alternative facts,' or the more frequently used 'fake news,' have been the catchphrases of the Trump administration to describe news stories they do not like, or that challenge statements they have made. Trump also uses the phrase generally to discredit news organizations and claim they never report the truth. In one instance, Trump accused CNN on Twitter of cutting off Senator Bernie Sanders (D) because he was exposing the fact they reported fake news. Sanders was in fact doing the opposite, joking about Trump’s tendency to dismiss any negative reports as 'fake news.'

But there are several factors hurting press freedom that have nothing to do with the campaign or the Trump presidency, according to the report, which researched more than 150 publicly reported incidents involving journalists between June 30 and Feb. 28.

  • Arrests and detainments: Journalists covering protests, including at President Trump's inauguration, Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, have been jailed or otherwise prevented from doing their jobs on multiple occasions:

    Six journalists who were covering protests at Trump’s inauguration were arrested in the capital and charged with felonies, the most severe punishment under Washington DC’s law against rioting.

    They included two reporters, a documentary producer, a photojournalist, a live-streamer and a freelance reporter. However, charges against four of the journalists were dropped nine days later. Charges against videographer Shay Horse were dismissed on February 21. Only freelance reporter Aaron Cantu remains charged with felony rioting.

  • Physical violence: Journalists have been physically harmed and threatened at demonstrations over the last year, according to the report:

    For instance, on August 14, 2016, two reporters were physically attacked by about a dozen people in Milwaukee during violent demonstrations against the police shooting of Sylville Smith, a black man who was killed fleeing a traffic stop. The reporters were filming a BP gas station which had been set on fire by protesters. Their equipment, including cameras and satellite packs, was stolen and one of the journalists had to go to hospital for an evaluation. At a Black Lives Matter protest, which took place on September 21 in Charlotte, Virginia, Mary Sturgill, an anchor for the Columbia, South Carolina, station WLTX, was tackled by demonstrators and her photographer was punched.

  • Lawsuits and criminal charges: The case against Gawker Media, bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, was one example of troubling litigation against journalists and the companies that employ them, according to the report. Commentator Glenn Beck, Fannin Focus (Blue Ridge, Georgia) Publisher Mark Thomason and TV reporter Phil Williams have all been on the receiving end of legal pressure within the last two years.

    “U.S. libel law has long been a model for the rest of the world," Melody Patry, a senior advocacy officer at the Index on Censorship, said in the report. "Lowering the burden of proof or otherwise loosening restrictions on lawsuits would pose a serious threat to press freedom in the country. At the same time, the misuse of the criminal justice system to silence journalists is a common occurrence in some European countries. This is not something that journalists in the USA should be exposed to."

    Online harassment: Journalists such as Megyn Kelly have faced slurs and threats online as social media has made harassment ubiquitous and easy. The report cites the case of Rosa Brooks, a professor of law at Georgetown University, who was accused of inciting a military coup by Infowars after writing in Foreign Policy about the threats Trump's presidency could pose to the constitution.

    In some cases, writers for right-leaning publications such as National Review have received the worst of it.

    On October 26, 2016, David French, who writes for the conservative publication National Review, told National Public Radio program Fresh Air how he was targeted. He wrote an article about the alt-right movement being white nationalist in its tone and tenor and found himself and his wife bombarded with hateful tweets and messages, including an image of his seven-year-old child, who was adopted from Ethiopia, in a gas chamber. He said it was his linking of Trump and the alt-right that specifically led to his family being subjected to anti-Semitic, racist and pornographic abuse.

    The Index on Censorship's report (which you can read in its entirety here) debuted on the same week as an analysis from Reporters Without Borders made a similarly gloomy assessment of U.S. press freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranked the U.S. 43rd out of 180 nations for press freedom, two spots worse than last year, in large part because of Trump's rhetoric.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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