On January 20th, six journalists were arrested while covering Inauguration Day protests in Washington, DC. The journalists were reporting on protests that had become violent when business windows were smashed and a limo was set on fire. Several days later, these journalists were charged with felony rioting under city law that states “every person who willfully incited or urged others to engage in the riot” can be charged, with a penalty of up to ten years in prison. However, lawyers and press associations have since stated that journalists were arrested simply for being in the same area as protesters — many of the reporters were wearing clothing or using equipment that identified them as journalists, and they repeatedly told police officers that they were not protesters. Indeed, on January 27th, the charges were already dropped against one of the reporters, and charges were dropped against three more several days later. Award-winning career journalists such as Christiane Amanpour and Dan Rather have spoken out against the current administration’s actions as threats against press freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
This week we donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, a nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide so journalists can report the news without fear of reprisal. Their advocacy services have led to the release of 51 imprisoned journalists in 2016, convictions of murderers who killed reporters, and legal reform in countries to promote free expression. CPJ’s research documents censorship, and cases of missing, exiled, killed, and imprisoned journalists around the world.
We believe that freedom of our press is a cornerstone of our democracy. Journalists cover all aspects of our news, which requires them to be present in danger zones and areas of conflict. Their job is to be observers reporting the story, and they should be not hindered by worrying about possible arrest and prosecution. As Dallas’s father, a sports columnist, taught her at a Laker’s game: “There’s no cheering in the press box.” Journalists pride themselves on reporting objectively — if these six, make that the remaining two, journalists are indeed found to have been guilty of inciting riots, then they are not true journalists. However, in our opinion, that outcome is highly unlikely. In any case, we believe that charging journalists with felony rioting sets a dangerous precedent that could quickly and steadily erode our nation’s vital freedom of the press.