Jonathan Ballew lifted his press credential above his head like a shield. It offered no protection when a Chicago police officer in riot gear blasted him with a stream of pepper spray that clouded his camera lens.
Journalists in other cities were pelted with rubber bullets and pepper balls, struck with police batons, fogged with tear gas, shoved to the ground and arrested while covering Black Lives Matter protests in the days following George Floyd’s killing, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Cops weren’t the only ones attacking reporters and photographers who turned up to document the historic demonstrations. In Pittsburgh, protesters swarmed KDKA-TV videographer Ian Smith and smashed his camera. In Oakland, two photojournalists were robbed at gunpoint.
It’s been a dangerous year to report the news. Since 2020 began, the Press Freedom Tracker has tallied 141 physical attacks on journalists, 50 arrests, 39 assaults resulting in damaged equipment and nine cases in which police searched or seized cameras and personal gear.
That’s enough to convince some well-meaning people that there oughta be a law.
A coalition of news industry trade groups are asking Congress to pass the Journalist Protection Act, which would create new federal crimes for those caught attacking members of the news media. Senate Bill 751 says a person convicted of causing bodily injury to a journalist can face up to three years in prison. Causing serious bodily injury doubles the sentence to six years.
Proponents have grave concerns about an inhospitable climate for journalism. They’ve correctly diagnosed a problem, but their solution misses the mark.
In order to single out journalists for protection, the government first has to determine who qualifies. The language in S. 751 is as inclusive as possible — “an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity or service that disseminates news or information” — but U.S. attorneys with wide prosecutorial discretion may be tempted to set their own parameters.
If large-market television crews and reporters from the major national newspapers can successfully invoke the law, will it be applied just as seamlessly for independent bloggers and podcasters? How about newly minted citizen journalists who witness breaking news and decide to start documenting it?
The First Amendment prevents government from imposing occupational licensing rules on journalists. From time to time, bureaucrats still try to meddle. In Georgia, state House Republicans floated an ill-fated measure to create a statewide journalism ethics board just last year.
The same news media industry groups that opposed Georgia’s regulatory scheme are cheering the Journalist Protection Act. But once the feds can decide who counts as a journalist, it isn’t quite so far down the slippery slope to let state officials convene ethics hearings to second-guess editorial decisions.
Expecting special treatment carries a whiff of elitism, and asking for favors undermines journalists’ independence from government. Sometimes all it takes is a squeak toy to turn a vigilant watchdog into a pliant lapdog.
Besides, a new federal crime isn’t high on our nation’s list of needs. The lawbooks are lousy with confusing, contradictory and nonsensical rules. There are at least 4,450 criminal statutes and 300,000 federal regulations with criminal penalties, according to Mike Chase, a lawyer and author of How to Become a Federal Criminal: An Illustrated Handbook.
Why invent new laws to describe the commission of old crimes? Assault and battery still fit the bill. False arrest and false imprisonment are recognized as common-law offenses in jurisdictions where they’re not codified in state statute.
Attacks on journalists that interfere with their ability to report the news are appalling, but the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker shouldn’t be measured in isolation. The police brutality and civil unrest that marred the George Floyd protests weren’t part of any war on the media.
Yes, 141 journalists have been assaulted this year.
And there are 780 recent Twitter videos that show police violence against protesters in major U.S. cities. The Floyd demonstrations resulted in 28 deaths and a staggering 14,000 arrests.
The storytellers aren’t the story right now.
— Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.