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Threats to press freedom in the U.S. persist, despite low numbers in 2022

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2022, you could say, was a return to normal. At least what was considered normal before the peak in 2020.
Photo of Jeff German
Jeff German, a veteran investigative reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was stabbed to death last September, allegedly by the subject of one of his investigations. (Photo credit: K.M. Cannon, Las Vegas Review-Journal)

This is the first installment of our four-part newsletter series analyzing U.S. press freedom violations in 2022. You can find links to all four parts in this blog post.

Today is World Press Freedom Day, a day when we celebrate the principles of a free press and champion the rights of journalists around the globe. For the second year in a row, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is marking this occasion by launching a four-part newsletter series analyzing threats to press freedom in the United States.

But it doesn’t take expert analysis to know that the journalism community has arrived on this date feeling deeply troubled by the current state of press freedom.

Fresh in the minds of journalists and press freedom advocates are the recent deaths of Jeff German and Dylan Lyons. German, a veteran investigative reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was stabbed to death last September, allegedly by the subject of one of his investigations. Months later, Lyons, a 24-year-old reporter for Spectrum News 13, was fatally shot while reporting at the scene of a homicide investigation in Pine Hills, Florida.

Their names join five others on the list of journalists who have been killed in the course of or as a result of their reporting since the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker began documenting such incidents in 2017.

“We are sadly seeing journalism become an increasingly dangerous profession in the United States,” Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown said after Lyons’s death, “and it should not be this way.”

Journalists should not have to fear reporting from the scene of a crime. Nor should they fear challenging public officials who have been accused of misusing their office or betraying the public’s trust. This is what journalists do. It’s what they’ve always done. And it’s how they keep their communities informed and people in power accountable.

Since 2017, according to the Tracker, journalists in the United States have faced nearly 1,000 assaults, most at the hands of law enforcement. Nearly 300 journalists have been arrested, detained, or charged with a crime. And hundreds more have confronted a wide range of other threats to press freedom, including subpoenas, equipment damage, access restrictions, and prior restraints.

The worst of it all happened in 2020, a year during which journalists faced a record number of attacks as they covered nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice. But as we wrote in our newsletter series last year, 2021 saw troubling misconduct, too, as journalists were targeted by rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol and private individuals protesting government vaccine and mask mandates.

2022, you could say, was a return to normal. At least what was considered normal before the peak in 2020.

If you judged 2022 strictly on the raw data going back to 2017, you might even conclude that it was a year worth celebrating for press freedom advocates. Compared to 2020 and 2021, for example, the number of press freedom violations decreased across almost every category — in some cases, significantly.

There were just 15 reported incidents of journalists being detained, arrested, or charged with a crime in 2022, according to the Tracker. That’s one-tenth of the total from 2020. The number of assaults dropped, too. Last year, there were only 40 reported incidents, down from 145 in 2021 and 631 in 2020.

But judging 2022 by the raw data alone ignores the human stories behind each of those numbers: the stories of German’s murder, the Ohio editor charged with wiretapping, and the journalists detained while covering reproductive rights protests, among others. If we drill down into those stories, we see that there’s still cause for concern about the state of press freedom in the United States, even if the numbers have improved.

As the Tracker’s Stephanie Sugars wrote in a blog post highlighting last year’s drop in arrests, “every arrest of a journalist has consequences for the free press.”

The stories behind the numbers also help explain why there’s reason for hope. They tell us how journalists and press freedom advocates, including Reporters Committee attorneys, are fighting back. In Colorado and Pennsylvania, for example, Reporters Committee attorneys helped local news outlets defeat unconstitutional prior restraints that sought to silence important public-interest reporting. In Las Vegas, the Reporters Committee continues to support the Review-Journal’s ongoing fight to protect newsgathering materials contained in German’s electronic devices. And at the national level, the Reporters Committee and other news media leaders successfully advocated for historic changes to U.S. Justice Department guidelines that strengthen protections for journalists.

As a member of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s advisory board, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has published annual reports analyzing press freedom violations confirmed by Tracker researchers each year and highlighting the Reporters Committee’s work to protect journalists and the public’s right to access information. You can find reports from 2017201820192020, and 2021 on our website.

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