Are Authorities Getting Press Freedom Training?

This summer, I asked students in my International Journalism class to guess where the United States ranked in the Press Freedom Index recently published by Reporters Without Borders.

I got some Top Tens and some Top Twenties. Now imagine the looks on their faces when I told them that they weren’t even close.

Reporters Without Borders lists the U.S. as 47th for press freedoms this year.

Estonia ranks (way) higher than us. So do Cape Verde, Jamaica, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Botswana, and Comoros, just to name a few.

Surprised that this could be in the land of the First Amendment? Here’s what the news release about the report had to say about that:

“The United States (47th) also owed its fall of 27 places to the many arrests of journalist[s] covering Occupy Wall Street protests.”

Many Americans may have been caught up in Occupy’s day-to-day narrative as it was unfolding, but media watchers — particularly free press advocates — were paying attention to the alarming numbers of journalist arrests.

Freedom House spoke out about it. The Society of Professional Journalists condemned the arrests. So did the Committee to Protect Journalists.

As a journalist myself, I abhor seeing colleagues get arrested when they are simply doing their jobs. I concede that there are some circumstances in which an occasional arrest might truly be accidental. But time and time again, journalists who were arrested while covering Occupy events clearly displayed their press credentials and even told authorities that they were journalists. But it simply didn’t matter.

This isn’t from Occupy, but check out the second video of a congressional town hall event from last year. The officer who confiscated the camera phones is clearly — and stupefyingly — ignorant of citizens’ basic rights to record public events in public places. He essentially argued that the press could cover the event but members of the general public couldn’t. That doesn’t even make sense. We journalists don’t have some kind of extra special privilege to do that. We’re simply exercising our rights as citizens, too.

When I see journalists being arrested here in the United States, or I see citizens being told that they can’t record something that is clearly public, I become concerned about the education our law enforcement officers are getting when they go through basic training or as they rise through their administrative ranks. They need — and I really hope they are getting — a solid understanding of our country’s free press laws and traditions.

Both law enforcement officers and journalists are public servants, and each should be allowed to do their jobs. Goodness knows I have a ton of respect for the work our law enforcement officers do. It can be an exceedingly dangerous, and sometimes thankless, job.

But the increasing numbers of journalist arrests in the country has got to stop.

One Response to “Are Authorities Getting Press Freedom Training?”
  1. Mel says:

    I know that at home police get a ton of training on how to handle different subjects. I don't see why they can't get training about the press as well.

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