Press Freedom in the USA 
Losing the Land of the Free

The United States falls 27 places in the World Press Freedom rankings due to arrests of journalists covering the “Occupy” protests

Violent Clashes: Police arresting a man at Occupy Wall Street after having run over his foot on their motorbike. Photo by Scott Dread via Flickr.

Violent Clashes: Police arresting a man at Occupy Wall Street after having run over his foot on their motorbike. Photo by Scott Dread via Flickr.

THE freedom of the press is one of the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, an amendment which has achieved an almost religious signifi- cance in the American political tradition. It therefore comes as a surprise that in the latest World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the United States has fallen 27 places over the past year to rank 47th in the world.

According to the report, this decline is attributable to the arrests of journalist covering the Occupy Wall Street protests.

“In the space of two months,” says the report, “in the United States more than 25 [journalists] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indict- ments for inappropriate behaviour, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.”

The Occupy Wall Street movement protested against the growing income inequality in the United States and targets the financial services sector as responsible. While they achieved very few tangible results in the way of governmental policy shifts, they have sparked a discourse across the country over corporate power.

The arresting of journalists covering the protests, therefore, is a troubling development that RSF was right to point out.

Josh Stearns, the Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director of Free Press, a non-profit organization working to reform the media, has compiled a list of all journalists arrested while covering the Occupy movement. As of the writing of this article, the number of arrests has reached 59.

Stearns, however, says that he does not believe these journal- ists are being arrested specifically because they are covering the movement, but instead are just being swept up into the larger set of arrests at each protest.
“However, that doesn’t excuse these actions,” he adds, “espe-

cially when journalists are actively identifying themselves as press and being ignored – or worse, having press credentials removed during police actions.”

A Common Thread?

While Stearns does not see the arrests as specifically targeting journalists covering the Occupy movement, he does see them as part of a growing crackdown against a new demographic of independent and freelance journalists resulting from the growth of online journalism. A glance at his list reveals that many of the journalists arrested were freelancers or citizen journalists not associated with large media institutions.

Nevertheless, the list also contains journalists representing more prestigious newspapers and magazines such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, ABC News, the New York Times, and even the Associated Press. The arrests are therefore clearly not limited to independent journalists, though they may make up a larger portion of the list.

When asked whether this type of crackdown on journalists is a unique phenomenon in the United States, Stearns mentioned the protest at the Republican National Convention of 2008 in St. Paul, where more than fifty journalists were arrested in a week. Among the most prominent were Democracy Now! reporter Amy Goodman and producers Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar.

“The video of Salazar’s violent arrest still gives me chills,” says Stearns.

He does add that through an online petition launched by Free Press, journalists detained in St. Paul were freed, and many, among them Amy Goodman, received a settlement from the police.

Interestingly, this incident in St. Paul did not affect the ranking of the United States in RSF’s 2009 World Press Freedom Index, perhaps because it was an isolated incident compared to the Occupy arrests, which have occurred across the country.

Cracking Down on Coverage

As of now arrests of journalists at Occupy movements are still ongoing, with 14 already detained in 2012. The most recent was Jacqui Kubin, a reporter for the Washington Times, who was arrested at an Occupy movement in Washington D.C. on February 10. This arrest, like many others, has received very little press coverage.

Stearns, however, is confident that these arrests will not limit public exposure to the Occupy movement, stating that “the journalist arrests have become a story in and of themselves and have helped to highlight aspects of the Occupy movement and the police reaction”.

Stearns analysis is confirmed by press coverage of the U.S. decline in the RSF ranking. The major media outlets that have reported on this decline have highlighted the reference made in the report to the crackdown on journalists reporting on the Occupy movement.

Perhaps if these arrests continue to receive more press coverage, the United States can reclaim some of its lost ground in the next World Press Freedom Index. According to Press Freedom Indices from earlier years, the country suffered a similar slip in the rankings during the Bush administration, when many journalists critical in their coverage of the war on terror were arrested for “national security” purposes. With the election of President Obama, however, the U.S. was able to recover 16 places in the index in one year, due to what the RSF perceived as a different approach to the war on terror that resulted in fewer arrests of journalists.

Reversing the current decline will take more than just a shift in national policy. But through a greater public awareness of the issue as well as collective action by its citizens, the United States can return to its former position in the rankings and once again be able to revere its First Amendment freedom.