When freedom of the press is not what law enforcement wants to hear

In the past two weeks, the coronavirus toll in the U.S. surpassed 100,000 deaths, people around the world protested against the killing of George Floyd, and more than 400 journalists have had their First Amendment rights infringed upon.

The unjustified deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, sparked a series of protests beginning on May 26 all over the country and the world. Since that first day, journalists have had their voices and their rights stripped away as police officers everywhere threaten, arrest, and physically attack them for covering these protests.

Our First Amendment gives us the freedom to assemble, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press. The problem is that the police, the ones who we’re supposed to rely on to enforce the law and uphold these rights, are throwing them aside by shutting down free speech, disbanding peaceful protests, and squashing the media. 

The U.S. Freedom Tracker website database has been keeping an accounting of freedom violations against journalists over time. These violations include illegal search and seizure, arrests, physical assault, and more. As of June 10, they have identified more than 405 violations with 75 percent of the violations having been committed by law enforcement.

Despite the obvious issue of police utterly disregarding rights that are specifically protected by the Constitution, there is an added consequence: When journalists are targeted, it creates fear for them to simply do their jobs. If they’re too afraid to show up and cover the protests against police brutality because they are worried of being maced or shot with rubber bullets, isn’t that a problem? The slam against democracy should be infuriating. 

“If you’re caught indiscriminately using violent force, especially to press, there’s no reason for you to be a person constituting law and order,” said Seattle photographer Zach Etahiri, who began covering the riots on May 30.

Police and protesters square off at 6th and Pine in downtown Seattle. Photo by Zach Etahiri

“Accountability is key and if law enforcement won’t protect journalists then someone else has to,” said Etahiri. “That is the function of a journalist or any press, to leave a mark in history so that people can be held accountable down the line.”

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against Minneapolis law enforcement because of their behavior against journalists during the George Floyd protests. This is a great start, but if we don’t continue actions like these, as a journalism student, I fear what the future holds for the free press in this country. 

“If you lose the account of history how are you supposed to stay on the right path? You’re just going to end up going in circles,” Etahiri said.

The obstruction of journalism in the current state of America is an obstruction of justice. Allowing the police to continue these brutal acts of aggression is essentially giving them permission to deny journalists not only their basic rights as citizens, but also the right to document a historic civil rights movement.  

Without holding the police to the same standards we’re basically telling them that they are above the law. In the end, we need justice, and that means the police officers who have committed these crimes must suffer the consequences of their brutal actions. 

“Press is a platform for the oppressed,” said Etahiri. “It’s our ultimate tool against fear, it’s our ultimate tool against ignorance, it’s our ultimate tool against racism and oppression. It’s literally one of the only weapons that we have against the things that have plagued humanity.”

While the number of violations continues to grow, so does the outrage of the people. It is my hope, that instead of stripping the rights and voices of the people, the government will start treating those voices with the protection and respect that they so deserve.

Power to the people! – It’s what the Constitution demands.

For more information visit https://pressfreedomtracker.us/.

Also visit http://www.zachetahiri.com/ for photos of the Seattle protests.

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