Why I Won't Stop Tracking Journalist Arrests

One year ago today I published a blog post entitled “Why I'm Tracking Journalist Arrests at Occupy Protests.” The next day, police raided New York City’s Zuccotti Park, where they arrested 12 journalists and blocked many others from documenting the raid.

Police had previously detained or arrested 13 journalists in the two months since the Occupy Wall Street movement began. By the end of 2011, that number grew to 60, and it now stands at roughly 100.

When I began tracking these arrests, it was an effort to bear witness, to make sure each of these stories was documented. But over the past year it has become much more than that. Through this work I have developed an incredible community of journalists, lawyers, press freedom advocates, organizers and a whole range of people who felt riled up and got involved. This network of friends and allies has been instrumental in tracking these arrests — sending tips, spreading the word, helping with research and supporting one another.

In working with people across the U.S. to chronicle journalist arrests, and in many cases advocate on behalf of journalists who’ve been detained, I’ve come to understand that expanding this community is critical to protecting the First Amendment. As journalism grows more networked and participatory, we need a system for supporting press freedom that builds on those same principles.

Traditionally, press freedom has been protected by institutions, like media companies, whose business interests depended on it. These companies had the legal resources and the clout to push back on First Amendment violations. But the arrests of the past year have illustrated the dwindling influence of these stakeholders and the need for new ways of defending press freedom.

With a few notable exceptions in New York and the Bay Area, commercial media didn’t weigh in on the journalist arrests. Those that did intervene tended to be newsrooms whose journalists were arrested or otherwise harassed. First Amendment groups, journalists’ professional organizations and local press associations have fought admirably, but they, like so many nonprofits, are stretched thin.

While some of the arrests I documented were relatively short detainments, other reporters were held for days and suffered rough treatment during and after their arrests. Some charges were dropped right away, but other journalists are just now being acquitted, almost a year after their arrests. A number of journalists are still waiting to hear the outcome of their cases while police drag out the process. 

The arrests received some national attention, but most people are still unaware of how extensive the problem is and no one is tracking the impact of these year-long legal battles on the journalists themselves. In a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review last February, Carla Murphy (who herself had been arrested and is still facing charges) examined how arrests chill speech, especially for independent journalists.

While journalists rarely discuss this openly, many of these arrests were traumatic experiences, especially for those who were detained for extensive periods. Most of the research on post-traumatic stress disorder in journalists focuses on war correspondents, but I have heard from journalists arrested this past year who are struggling with similar symptoms. And I’ve talked with a number of journalists who approach their work very differently than they did before their arrests. These arrests are not just about our universal rights, but also about people’s individual lives.

A year ago I wrote “I’m tracking these journalist arrests because I’m concerned about the state of the First Amendment, and our willingness as a public and a democracy to defend it.” That worry continues today.

We need commercial media institutions to continue fighting to protect the First Amendment. We need strong nonprofit advocates to support citizen and independent journalists. We need journalists to stand up for each other on city streets and in the halls of power. But more than anything, we need to understand that we all have a stake in the First Amendment — and a role to play in defending it.

That’s why I’m going to continue tracking journalist arrests — to bear witness, to broaden the community of concern and to use the tools of media making to empower more people as advocates of our shared First Amendment rights.

Timeline: One Year in the Debate Over Press Freedom

Sept. 17, 2011: Occupy Wall Street begins in New York City

Sept. 24, 2011: John Farley of WNET/Thirteen is the first journalist arrested while covering Occupy Wall Street.

Oct. 1, 2011: The Occupy Wall Street movement crosses the Brooklyn Bridge, leading to mass arrests, including the arrests of three journalists.

Nov. 15–17, 2011: The New York Police Department raids Zuccotti Park right before the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Twelve journalists are arrested, with two more arrested on the actual anniversary two days later.

Nov. 18, 2011: The NYPD admits to arresting journalists with NYPD press credentials.

Nov. 21, 2011: New York media demand a meeting with NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne about abuses of press covering Occupy Wall Street.

Nov. 23, 2011: The NYPD issues a formal memo ordering officers to avoid “unreasonably interfer[ing]” with journalists. (Ten days later the NYPD arrest another journalist.)

Dec. 1, 2011: Forty-thousand people send letters and call their mayors, asking them to defend press freedom in their cities.

Dec. 8, 2011: The Committee to Protect Journalists releases its 2011 global census of journalist imprisonment, and finds that “the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide shot up more than 20 percent to its highest level since the mid-1990s.”

Dec. 9, 2011: Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York calls on the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD’s raid on Zuccotti Park and its treatment of protesters and journalists.

Dec. 12, 2011: The NYPD arrests nine independent journalists, livestreamers and photographers at the Winter Garden in New York City. Video also reveals officers blocking a New York Times photographer as he tries to cover the arrests.

Dec. 13, 2011: A series of “Who is a Journalist?” posts appear here, here and here.

Jan. 3, 2012: The NYPD raid the Brooklyn studio of Globalrevolution.tv, one of the central livestreaming groups covering Occupy Wall Street, and arrest six citizen journalists.

Jan. 18, 2012: The SOPA Internet Blackout spreads across the Web in protest of a piracy bill with broad First Amendment implications.

Jan. 25, 2012: Reporters Without Borders releases its yearly press freedom ranking. The U.S. plummets 27 spots to 47th in the world.

Jan. 28, 2012: Oakland police detain or arrest nine journalists when Occupy Oakland attempts to take over an empty building.

Feb. 2, 2012: Some cities respond to journalist arrests with apologies and police reprimands. Documentarian Josh Fox is arrested while trying to film a public hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Feb. 9, 2012: Sixteen-thousand people send letters of support to journalists who have been arrested.

March 3, 2012: Bay Area journalists and press organizations meet with Oakland Mayor Jean Quan about ongoing press suppression and arrests in the city.

April 30, 2012: A coalition of elected officials and members of the press file a civil rights lawsuit against the NPYD seeking redress for police misconduct during Occupy Wall Street protests. The National Press Photographers Association joins the lawsuit later in the year.

May 3, 2012: On World Press Freedom Day, a coalition of press freedom and digital rights groups send a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling on the Justice Department to protect all people’s “right to record.”

May 14, 2012: The Justice Department releases a lengthy memo providing guidance to police departments and asserting that people’s right to record is protected under the First Amendment.

May 20, 2012: Four journalists are arrested while covering the NATO summit in Chicago. Other journalists and livestreamers complain about being targeted and harassed by police.

June 8, 2012: NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne tries to rewrite history and denies the NYPD arrested journalists the department had earlier admitted to arresting.

July 25, 2012: Researchers at NYU and Fordham law schools release an eight-month study which finds the NYPD “consistently violated basic rights” by using aggressive force and obstructing press freedom.

July 31, 2012: Twitter bans journalist Guy Adams for revealing an NBC executive’s work email address during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. (Adams was later reinstated.)

Aug. 27–Sept. 6, 2012: The Democratic and Republican conventions included a significant police and security detail, but there are relatively few incidents of press suppression.

Sept. 15–17, 2012: Eight journalist arrests occur on the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. This leads to another set of letters from the Society for Professional Journalists, the National Press Photographers Association and 13 other media organizations.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good