Attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and representatives of Fundamedios, as well as U.S. government officials, condemned the press freedom violations committed by law enforcement at nationwide protests during a hearing on Wednesday before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The commission, which is part of the Organization of American States and promotes the observance and protection of human rights in the Western hemisphere, heard testimony from Reporters Committee attorneys Sarah Matthews and Gabe Rottman, as well as Frank LaRue, advocacy and legal director for Fundamedios and former U.N. special rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to the freedom of opinion and expression, about the dramatic increase in arrests of and the use of force against journalists sparked by the protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Representatives of both the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department also addressed the IACHR.
Matthews, who serves on the advisory board for the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which documents aggressions against members of the U.S. news media, testified that while protests are historically some of the most dangerous places for journalists, the number of attacks and arrests against journalists at protests has increased markedly compared to previous years.
She reported that, since a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, sparking a wave of protests across the United States, journalists have reported more than 850 total press freedom incidents to the Press Freedom Tracker. In 2019, the Tracker documented 152 total press freedom violations.
“Attacking and arresting journalists simply for reporting the news is not acceptable in a free society,” Matthews told the commission.
In his testimony, LaRue expressed concern that these persistent attacks on journalists at protests in the United States have been encouraged by rhetoric from President Donald Trump. By repeatedly denouncing the news media, he testified, Trump has created an atmosphere in which law enforcement may feel emboldened to use excessive force against the press at protests.
Gustavo Martínez, a reporter for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, shared details of his own arrest during a recent protest. Martínez described how police officers tackled him to the ground, knocked his phone out of his hand and detained him in a van with other people — even though he said he repeatedly identified himself as a member of the press and wore his press badge around his neck.
“A press badge should not be a bulls-eye,” Martínez said. Charges against Martínez were later dropped.
Rottman, director of the Reporters Committee’s Technology and Press Freedom Project, mentioned in his testimony that federal courts in the United States have recognized a First Amendment right to document police activity in public, and about half of the federal appeals courts have found that the “right to record” is “clearly established.”
He also offered recommendations for reform for law enforcement at all levels of government in the United States that would help deter future press freedom violations, including increased police training, transparency and discipline.
“To be clear,” Rottman testified, “while we understand the challenges that officers face in policing during protests — challenges that journalists face as well in covering public demonstrations — the bedrock American ideal of a free press demands that we protect First Amendments rights even more zealously in times of challenge.”
Bradley Freden and Andrew Stevenson, representatives of the Organization of American States, and U.S. State Department attorney Thomas Weatherall each condemned violence against journalists as an infringement on their First Amendment rights.
When asked by the Commission about investigations into the attacks and arrests of journalists at recent protests, Freden responded that, while they would not address specific incidents, they will be investigating and seeking accountability when law enforcement violates the law.
Weatherall similarly declined to talk about what law enforcement is currently doing to address press freedom violations during protests.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and represents journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.