Threat tracker

At the beginning of last year, the US Press Freedom Tracker started cataloguing every violation of press freedom that took place on American soil, be it through violence, arrest, denial of access, or other threats. This is a selection of those incidents from 2017.

Illustrations by Niv Bavarsky

Assaulted by Antifa

On August 27, freelance reporter Dave Minsky was on assignment in Berkeley, California, covering a planned white nationalist demonstration and counterprotest. When the white nationalist demonstration was aborted, peaceful anti-fascist protesters celebrated in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. As Minsky—who has written for Reuters, Vice, the Miami New Times and the Santa Barbara News-Press—livestreamed the demonstration in the park, one masked protester approached him and tried to grab his phone. As Minsky backed up, he tripped and other masked protesters began beating him while he lay on the ground.

“Two, three people started trying to grab my phones out of my hands, grab the [camera] off my neck,” he says. “They were hitting me in the face and kicking me in the face and the torso, in the ribs and more people joined in—you know, I think at this point there were four, five, maybe six people.”

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He says he tried to flee the area, but a small group of protesters pursued him, shouting that he was a Nazi. One woman hit him in the ribs with a metal monopod. The protesters also took his reporter’s notebook, one of his two iPhones, and his DSLR camera lens.

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Two Oakland police officers eventually escorted Minsky away from the melee and took him to an ambulance. Minsky says he refused medical attention because he does not have health insurance. He later experienced trouble breathing and sharp pains in his chest, possible signs of a broken rib.

—Peter Sterne

 

Detained at the border

Shortly before crossing the US–Canadian border on September 4, In These Times senior editor Terry J. Allen took photos of buildings and vehicle congestion near the Highgate Springs Station border crossing that connects Quebec and Vermont. When she arrived at the border checkpoint, a half hour or so after taking the photos, US Customs and Border Protection stopped her and asked whether she had photographed the border crossing. Allen said she had and that she was a journalist who had photographed border checkpoints in the past. The CBP agent ordered her to delete the photos from her camera.

“Look, you don’t have the right to demand this, but, here, I’ll delete the SD card in my camera,” she said.

When the CBP officer ordered her to hand over her phone, she refused. Her passport was confiscated, and she was briefly detained. After an interview with a CBP supervisor, who told her photography was strictly prohibited, her passport was returned, and she was allowed to enter the United States.

Despite what the CBP supervisor told Allen, the federal regulations that generally prohibit taking photographs on federal property explicitly allow the photography “for news purposes.”

—Kirk Duval

 

Assaulted at a Trump rally

When OC Weekly photographers Julie Leopo and Brian Feinzimer, and intern Frank Tristan, covered a pro-Trump rally in Huntington Beach, California, they encountered a tense situation.

“Just as I was about to click the shutter on my camera, I looked up and locked eyes with a white woman carrying a flag,” Leopo wrote in an OC Weekly article about the incident. “Out of all the people in the crowd, she glared at me. Her stare was cold, angry, and taunting. She smirked and walked toward me . . . . The pro-Trump woman began to hit my camera and arm with her American flag. I yelled ‘STOP!’ and held out my arm.”

After the woman started to hit Leopo, another pro-Trump protester violently shoved Feinzimer and then punched Tristan when he stepped in to protect his colleagues. OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano said his reporters flagged down a police officer after the attack and asked to file a police report, but were ignored.

“My photographers and intern were just trying to do their jobs,” he said in a statement. “For that, they got harassed by Trump supporters, then shoved and punched when they tried to defend each other.”

—Kirk Duval

 

Detained at Standing Rock

Starting in December 2016, independent journalist Jenni Monet reported full-time on the “Water Protector” movement fighting the planned Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Monet—a member of the Laguna Pueblo nation who has written for The Center for Investigative Reporting, Indian Country Today, and Yes! Magazine—was detained by police for trespassing on February 1, after covering a water protector demonstration. Monet said she told the officers she was a journalist and showed them her press pass, but they still arrested her.

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Writing in Indian Country Today, Monet reported that she was denied a phone call to her attorney for 25 hours after her arrest and was detained for more than 30 hours before finally being released. She also wrote she and other non-white detainees were subjected to strip searches that their white counterparts were not.

Monet was one of a number of journalists arrested while reporting at Standing Rock in 2017. Others include freelance reporter Jenifer Stum, filmmaker Jahnny Lee, photojournalists Tonita Cervantes and Tracie Williams, and Mic reporter Jack Smith IV. While charges against Smith were dropped in December, the other five—Monet, Stum, Lee, Cervantes, and Williams—still face criminal charges of trespassing and engaging in a riot. They will go to trial in 2018.

—Peter Sterne and Stephanie Sugars

 

Source jailed without bail

On June 5, The Intercept published an article about Russian attempts to hack American voting software companies. The article was based on a classified NSA report that an anonymous source had leaked to the news organization.

Two days earlier, the FBI raided the house of Reality Winner, a 26-year-old NSA contractor, who had been arrested and accused of sending the classified report to a news organization. The Department of Justice announced Winner’s arrest on June 5—the same day The Intercept published its article—and said she had voluntarily confessed to FBI agents that she had leaked the classified NSA report to The Intercept. Winner later said the armed FBI agents who raided her house never read her Miranda rights before eliciting her confession.

Winner was charged under the Espionage Act—a 1917 law originally intended to criminalize spying for foreign powers, which more recently has been used against journalists’ sources. In a pre-trial brief filed by the government, federal prosecutors argued it was irrelevant whether Winner’s leak actually harmed US national security or whether that was even her intent: Under the Espionage Act, merely giving information to a reporter could be enough to land a source in prison.

Winner has been held without bail since she was taken into custody in June, and a federal judge has twice denied her requests for bail. She is scheduled to go on trial in March 2018.

—Peter Sterne

 

Assaulted by a congressman

On May 24, the day before a special congressional election in Montana, Guardian US reporter Ben Jacobs attempted to interview Republican candidate Greg Gianforte at his campaign headquarters in Bozeman. But as Jacobs asked the candidate about healthcare policy, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” a Fox News reporter who witnessed the attack later wrote. “[We] watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”

Despite this eyewitness account, Gianforte initially told police officers that Jacobs had been the aggressor, and a spokesman for his campaign released a statement blaming Jacobs for the assault.

The next day, Gianforte won the special election. In his victory speech, he apologized to Jacobs. On June 7, as part of a settlement with Jacobs, he agreed to donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists and released a public apology, “Notwithstanding anyone’s statements to the contrary, you did not initiate any physical contact with me, and I had no right to assault you.” Five days later, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to community service and anger management classes but no jail time. He has already filed for re–election in 2018.

Peter Sterne

 

Presidential prosecution

During an Oval Office meeting in February, President Trump discussed with James Comey, then the FBI director, the possibility of prosecuting journalists for reporting on classified information. “Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates,” The New York Times reported in May.

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Comey does not appear to have objected to Trump’s desire to jail journalists. Here’s how he described the meeting in written testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee: “The President then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information—a concern I shared and still share.”

No journalist has ever been convicted of a crime for publishing classified information. The Obama administration successfully prosecuted more than half a dozen people who shared classified information with journalists, but stopped short of prosecuting the journalists who published articles based on that information.

—Peter Sterne

 

Access denied at Camp Lejeune

When James LaPorta, a Marine Corps veteran and freelance journalist, tried to investigate sexual assault allegations against Marine Colonel Daniel Wilson at the Camp Lejeune base in North Carolina, the Marine Corps banned him from entering the base. In the course of his reporting, LaPorta interviewed a woman living on the base who claimed Wilson raped her, and visited Wilson in the brig.

LaPorta later received a letter from the deputy commander of Camp Lejeune, informing him that he had violated military regulations by failing to secure permission from the public affairs office before conducting interviews on the base. “Based upon the serious nature of your misconduct, you are being debarred from [Camp Lejeune],” the letter reads. “I have determined that your presence aboard [Camp Lejeune] is detrimental to the security, good order and discipline of the Installation,” it continues. “Accordingly, you are hereby notified, upon the receipt of this letter, that you are ordered not to reenter, or be found within the limits of [Camp Lejeune].”

—Peter Sterne

 

Arrested at the inauguration

On January 20, as Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States, a group of anarchists, anti-fascists, and other demonstrators marched in downtown Washington, DC, in protest of Trump. A number of reporters—some from mainstream news organizations, some independent—covered the demonstrations. A few of the protesters broke windows, though the overwhelming majority remained peaceful. Hours later, DC Metropolitan Police kettled and arrested a group of more than 200 protesters, journalists, and legal observers.

Initially, nine journalists were arrested and charged with rioting, a felony. Federal prosecutors dropped charges against seven of the journalists, but a grand jury indicted the remaining two—independent photojournalist Alexei Wood and freelance reporter Aaron Cantú—on multiple felony counts of rioting, inciting a riot, conspiracy to riot, and destruction of property. In all, those charges carry a combined maximum of more than 60 years in prison. Cantú is scheduled to go to trial in October 2018, but Wood’s trial started in late November. During the trial, the prosecution argued that Cantú was not a “real” journalist because he had streamed the protest on Facebook Live and provided narration and opinionated commentary.

Peter Sterne

 

Arrested in St. Louis

On September 17, hundreds of people marched in downtown St. Louis to protest the acquittal of a white former police officer who had fatally shot a black man. Jon Ziegler, an independent journalist known for covering protests, livestreamed the demonstration on his YouTube channel RebZ.tv.

Around 11pm, large groups of St. Louis metropolitan police officers kettled about a hundred people, surrounding them at a downtown intersection and ordering all of them to lie down on the ground. Ziegler was among those caught in the kettle.

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He continued livestreaming, capturing footage of officers indiscriminately pepper spraying and violently arresting people. “I was drenched in spray,” he recalled later. “I remember my tripod looking like it had rained on it.” As he lay on the ground, he said, one officer sprayed pepper spray directly at his mouth and another officer pushed his head down into the concrete. Ziegler believes that St. Louis police officers specifically targeted him because of his previous reporting on police brutality. He said that a few of the officers repeatedly mockingly referred to him as “superstar” and that his arresting officer joked that he was his “biggest fan” and followed all of his reporting. After a night in jail, Ziegler was released on a $50 bond and continued covering the nightly protests. On October 3, he was arrested for a second time. In addition to Ziegler, at least nine reporters were arrested while covering protests in St. Louis during September and October. All were initially cited for trespassing or failure to disperse, but following public outcry, prosecutors declined to pursue charges against any of the journalists.

—Peter Sterne

 

Chilling statement

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 18, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to say whether the Department of Justice would prosecute journalists for actions related to their work. “Will you commit to not putting reporters in jail for doing their jobs?” Senator Amy Klobuchar asked him. “I don’t know that I can make a blanket commitment to that effect,” he said. “But I would say this: We have not taken any aggressive action against the media at this point. But we have matters that involve the most serious national security issues, that put our country at risk, and we will utilize the authorities that we have, legally and constitutionally, if we have to.”

In August, as he announced that the Justice Department is considering changing its internal policies to make it easier to subpoena journalists, Sessions suggested that the government had been too lenient toward reporters who endanger national security. “We respect the important role that the press plays, and we’ll give them respect, but it is not unlimited,” Sessions said. “They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press’s role with protecting our national security and the lives of those who serve in the intelligence community, the armed forces, and all law-abiding Americans.”

—Camille Fassett

 

Subpoenaed by the DOJ

In January 2016, Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter John Sepulvado interviewed Ryan Bundy, who helped lead the group of anti-government protesters who forcibly occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Later that year, federal prosecutors charged Bundy and others with federal conspiracy and weapons charges, and asked Sepulvado to voluntarily testify at Bundy’s trial. He refused, and the Department of Justice dropped the issue.

Shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president and Jeff Sessions was sworn in as attorney general, DOJ lawyers subpoenaed Sepulvado. Sessions personally approved the department’s decision to request the subpoena, which would force Sepulvado to testify at the trial and turn over unaired portions of his interview with Bundy. Sepulvado refused to cooperate and challenged the subpoena in court.

“To violate the trust of my named source, and the audience, by testifying for or against anyone in a criminal trial would erode both my credibility and OPB’s, impeding our ability to report freely under the First Amendment,” he wrote in a first-person essay published in The Portland Mercury. “My unnamed sources are people who have entrusted me to protect their identity no matter what, in exchange for information of importance to the public.”

On February 24, 2017, a federal judge in Portland ruled in Sepulvado’s favor, quashing the subpoena.

Peter Sterne

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Peter Sterne, Kirk Duval, Stephanie Sugars & Camille Fassett work with the US Press Freedom Tracker. Peter Sterne is the project's managing editor.