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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: July 19, 2020

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  1. Policy

On Thursday, the Technology and Press Freedom Project’s Linda Moon will join Digital Strategist Tim Schwartz, author of “A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure, and Anonymity,” for a webinar dedicated to unpacking the rights of journalists and content producers during times of pandemic and protest. The webinar, hosted by Alley, a digital consulting firm, will explore strategies to help journalists safely document protests and police brutality and work with sources securely and remotely. Register for the webinar here.

Also, the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law is hiring a legal fellow for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 academic years. The fellow will work with Reporters Committee attorneys Gabe Rottman and Jennifer Nelson, who administer the Clinic.

Here’s what the staff of the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is tracking this week.

Reporters Committee challenges New Jersey prosecutor’s investigative findings on officers sued by arrested journalist

A journalist has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming police violated his federal and state constitutional rights, including the right to record police activity in public, after he was tackled and arrested while covering a June 1 Black Lives Matter protest in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

According to a filing in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Gustavo Martínez Contreras, a reporter for the Asbury Park Press, was live-streaming the protest when he noticed police officers violently arrest two teenagers. The reporter was backing away from the scene, per instructions by the officers, but continued to record.

As documented in footage from the reporter and police body-worn cameras, officers then swore at Martínez Contreras, slapped his phone out of his hand, tackled him, and arrested him. The filing alleges that an officer later asked about the badge the journalist was wearing around his neck, which showed his press credentials, and that Martínez Contreras identified himself as a reporter on four other occasions.

The complaint, filed on July 13, notes that “reporters’ rights must be as ingrained in policing as Miranda rights,” and asks the court to order police not to interfere with First Amendment activities in the future. It also asks that the court require law enforcement to change their policies to prevent such interference, and for unspecified damages.

“A press badge should not be a bullseye,” the filing reads. “Reporters should not be in danger of violence or arrest at the hands of the police seeking to silence their reports on public protests — especially where those reports cover police violence against civilians protesting peacefully against police misconduct.”

The same day the suit was filed, the Reporters Committee sent a letter to New Jersey officials protesting a local prosecutor’s reliance on Reporters Committee resources to clear the officers who arrested Martínez Contreras of wrongdoing.

In investigative findings released on June 8, the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office, which covers Asbury Park, claimed that the officers reasonably believed Martínez Contreras was a protester disobeying a lawful order. The report further claimed that the officers did not know Martínez Contreras was a reporter because he was allegedly not wearing bright clothing. The prosecutor’s office cited the Reporters Committee’s guide and tip sheet for journalists covering protests, which only provide practical safety advice, including that journalists should “try not to wear clothing that matches what protesters are wearing.”

The relevant legal standard, however, is whether officers reasonably should have known that Martínez Contreras was a reporter. The letter thus argues that the Reporters Committee’s resources do not support the prosecutor’s arguments, and asks that the findings be updated accordingly.

— Abe Kenmore

Quick Hits

NPR recently reported that foreign nationals working for Voice of America and other U.S. international broadcasters may not have their visas extended upon expiration, raising further concerns over the editorial independence of VOA and its sister services. A decision not to renew these visas could impact dozens of employees, some of whom could face retaliation for their reporting if forced to return to their home countries.

The video app TikTok said it received 500 demands for user data from governments in the first half of the year, up 67 percent from the second half of 2019. Most demands came from India — which has since banned the app. The company reported that none of the demands were from China, the home of TikTok’s parent company. Reporters at the Washington Post recently analyzed the data TikTok collects from users.

Verizon recently launched a feature called “Number Lock” to provide added security to its customers. “Number Lock” allows users to prevent scammers from “SIM swapping,” or transferring a user’s number to another carrier in order to take control of bank, email, and social media accounts.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has announced an investigation within the Pentagon to weed out leakers, while White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows reportedly told some staffers that he has fed information to suspected leakers to determine whether they then pass the information to the media. The inquiry comes in the wake of disclosures that led to reports of Russia offering bounties to Afghan militants for killing American troops.

On Thursday, Twitter reported that it was the target of a “coordinated social engineering attack,” which resulted in the accounts of hundreds of popular users posting spam-like messages about crypto currency. The company said the breach was conducted by unspecified individuals who targeted company employees with access to sensitive internal administrative systems.

🤓 Smart reads 📖

deep dive by Vox’s Recode explores the development and future of smartphone trackers, which can extract and aggregate data from a wide variety of apps.

This analysis from the Columbia Journalism Review details the lengths media organizations have gone to in order to obtain and disseminate accurate data about COVID-19. Many news outlets have sued local officials for access to data, while others have created their own statistical tools to provide a complete picture of the pandemic in the absence of similar government resources.

Gif of the Week: Many quick hits this week remind us that cell phones can raise paw-sonal privacy issues.


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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee Attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Fellow Linda Moon, Legal Fellows Jordan Murov-Goodman and Lyndsey Wajert, Policy Interns Abe Kenmore and Joey Oteng, and Legal Intern Sasha Peters.