“We’ve seen that they have been retaliated against which is very unusual — not what we would expect to see in the United States”
In a shocking new report, the watchdog U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has found at least 190 attacks on press freedom since Friday, spanning from physical assault against journalists to confiscated equipment. Wake-Up Call spoke with Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, about what journalists are facing on the ground at these protests. She spoke of the “unusual” retaliation journalists are receiving, and shared vital tips for reporters.
Wake-Up Call: What are you seeing right now with what’s going on with the protests and the safety of the press?
Courtney Radsch: The Committee to Protect Journalists has been on high alert since Friday, when the first arrests and violence against journalists really started to escalate. It began with the arrest on-air of Omar Jimenez from CNN and the violence has escalated from there — much of it at the hands of police, who appear to have been targeting journalists in many cases, including after those who identified themselves as journalists and when they knew they were being filmed. Thus far, they appear to have been able to conduct those attacks with impunity.
We are really concerned about what’s happening. In addition to monitoring, right now, we’re investigating more than 160 incidents of anti-press violence and attacks on press freedom. Along with our partners, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, we are putting out safety guidance for journalists on how to cover civil unrest during a global health pandemic, as safely as they possibly can, while realizing that a lot of the stuff that they’re facing, they can’t necessarily control.
On that note, we are, of course, in the middle of a global pandemic. Before the civil unrest, were journalists having to take new safety precautions with the pandemic?
We were on high footing before this, for the coronavirus. We pivoted and really started covering that extensively, both in the United States and around the world.
Unfortunately, what we saw happen with the coronavirus, is not only does it turn every journalist who is out of their house reporting on it, into a journalist who needs to understand their safety situation — it also led to a crackdown on the press around the world that resulted in dozens of journalists getting arrested or beaten at police checkpoints. We have put out a series of safety advisories for journalists on how to cover coronavirus safely: how to don personal protective equipment, for journalists who are now confined to their home and rely on digital communications and offering advice on what extra steps they might need to take to secure their digital devices to maintain the confidence of their sources.
We’ve put out specific advice on covering the anti-Covid protests. And then we, of course, put out more advice for covering these latest protests. So it’s really been, all-hands on deck and go, go, go since the coronavirus emerged in early March.
There’s been civil unrest in the U.S. many times throughout history — but this is a heightened situation because not only is it a pandemic, but this unrest is in every major city across the entire country. What sort of challenges does this pose for protecting journalists right now?
We know that protests are often times when journalists face danger and need to take specific safety measures. We’re seeing a lot of journalists out in their local communities. We also see that some police departments don’t appear to understand the role or rights of an independent free press in the United States — that they have a First Amendment protected right to report and to be out reporting on police activities. We’ve seen that they have been retaliated against which is very unusual — not what we would expect to see in the United States.
But I do want to put it into context for you as well. There’s been an increasing militarization of the police, in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, with the transfer of old military equipment to local police departments and the increasing militarization of their tactics, such as kettling and other tactics to do crowd control.
This is all creating a very challenging situation, coupled with the decline of local media. You don’t necessarily have reporters on the police beat who have that relationship who can cross police lines. So it’s really a constellation of factors. And then it’s all wrapped up in this anti-press rhetoric emanating from President Trump, whose constant vilification of the press as the enemy of the people, has helped fuel the flames.
Touching on what you said about the decline of local journalism positions: Now that so many journalists are out of work and are now turning to freelance work, does that pose new challenges for them while they cover unrest?
Freelancers lack the institutional protections and support that staff journalists often have. This includes often a lack of insurance. They may not have an editor who is familiar with how to report safely, or even to think about asking about safety — especially if it’s not a commissioning editor that’s worked in a conflict zone situation or with conflict reporters. They might not be thinking about safety as an element. And then even if they are thinking about it, do they have the resources they need?
When they’re negotiating for their day rate or their story rate, they have to take into account the costs of personal protective equipment, the cost of keeping themselves safe, of being able to do this reporting safely — not to mention the fact again, that many lack health insurance.
All of this is really coming to the forefront right now. Meanwhile, we’ve seen massive layoffs in the media industry, and we’re also hearing from freelancers that jobs are just disappearing. That obviously makes their livelihood more difficult. In some cases, many will not have not gotten paid for work that they had already done on a story.
CPJ works across the world to protect journalists. Right now, the unrest in the U.S. is so widespread — to a degree that younger reporters have likely not seen before. What sort of work have you done to help journalists cover situations similar to this in other parts of the world?
CPJ Emergencies provide safety advisories on a range of situations around the world. Last year, we did a lot actually on elections because we know that elections… can be a real challenging and threatening time for journalists to do their work.
So we put out a series of safety advisories for different countries around the world, including in South Africa, India, Lebanon… We put out safety advisories for covering unrest and elections in Algeria and protests in Iraq. So we’re very active and trying to get this really important safety, and potentially life-saving information to journalists when a particularly volatile situation erupts, regardless of where in the world that happens.
What set of resources are available for journalists to ensure that they have proper passes, safety gear, and other means to protect themselves right now?
We have a series of safety notes, which are geared towards specific contexts or incidents. So context might be, “I’m really worried about phishing online,” or, “I’m worried about how to cover a protest.” We also have first aid videos, which are short, easily accessible tutorials that cover some very common first aid scenarios, and a resource center where we link to resources that the community is also providing.
We try to elevate each other’s resources. In addition, we are a founding member of the ACOS Alliance, which again stands for “A Culture of Safety.” And it was created to enable a culture of safety, specifically around concerns of freelancer safety.
They have helped to provide access to insurance for freelancers because it’s been very hard for them to get insurance, including in the United States, or Americans abroad, not to mention local journalists traveling in the country. We have templates to do risk assessments. One of the most important safety protocols is to do a risk assessment before you go out on assignment. So there’s a whole slew of resources and they’re on our website.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This post has been updated.
This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.