US Press Freedom Tracker: Reporters Criminalized For 'Routine Journalism' In 2023

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, documented several incidents in 2023, where reporters were criminalized for “routine journalism."

US Press Freedom Tracker: Reporters Criminalized For 'Routine Journalism' In 2023
Screen shot from U.S. Press Freedom Tracker's 2023 report on arrested and detained journalists

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In 2023, the United States government armed the Israeli military in an assault and siege on Gaza that has killed over 75 journalists. It has repeatedly been confirmed that military forces targeted journalists—and their families—to eliminate them and their coverage of the war.

Despite increased calls from the Australian government and other world leaders to drop the charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the U.S. government still backs an unprecedented prosecution that civil liberties, human rights, and press freedom organizations have labeled a dangerous threat to journalism and freedom of expression.

The above forms a global backdrop for the arrest and detention of 12 journalists over the past year.

As documented in an annual report from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, several U.S. reporters were criminalized for “routine journalism.”

It shows that “authorities either do not understand newsgathering practices,” or worse, officials do understand and “use prosecutions as a cudgel to chill future reporting.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker also highlighted at least 30 examples, where journalists or media organizations “were summoned into courtrooms to identify their source or turn over reporting materials.” One incident even resulted in criminal charges.

A few of the examples of “routine journalism” that was criminalized were previously covered by The Dissenter:

—an Alabama prosecutor charged two journalists with felonies for reporting on a grand jury

—a federal judge ordered a former Fox News reporter to reveal the identity of a confidential source

—two Asheville Blade reporters in North Carolina were convicted of “trespassing” when they attempted to cover the eviction of a homeless encampment

—police assaulted and arrested a NewsNation reporter at a press conference held by the Ohio governor after a train disaster in East Palestine

But The Dissenter missed this incident in California. According to the annual report, “two Los Angeles Times reporters were accused by the local police union of ‘stalking’ after they attempted to contact an officer at her home.”

“The union emailed the journalists’ names and photos to its thousands of members, advising officers not to speak to them and claiming that it was ‘unacceptable’ for journalists to approach officers at their homes,” the report adds.

Poynter summarized the incident that spurred reporters to go to a bomb technician’s home and seek comment. In June 2021, the police “received a tip about a man selling illegal fireworks out of an alley in South Los Angeles. When police arrived, they found dozens upon dozens of boxes of fireworks and explosives, including some that appeared homemade.”

Police detonated the explosives in a “total containment vessel,” which “damaged 35 properties and injured 17 people. Dozens [were reportedly] displaced from their homes.” It was unclear if any of the officers involved were ever held accountable for their actions.

A newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian, was “held in contempt of court” when the newspaper refused to turn over interview questions and notes from a jailhouse interview that their reporter Ishani Desai conducted. The material was subpoenaed by a public defender.

“While the charge was dropped due to procedural errors,” according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, "a court of appeals ruled that the defendant’s fair trial rights overcame” protections under the state’s shield law for reporters.

Christine Peterson, the newspaper’s executive editor, was faced with “high legal costs” if the media organization appealed to the California Supreme Court. So the organization succumbed to legal pressure.

“In an age of diminished newsroom resources—experienced by newsrooms across the country—we were compelled to make a practical decision,” Peterson declared.

The Dissenter covered the illegal police raids against the Marion County Record in Kansas that are believed to have played a role in the death of the community newspaper’s co-owner. However, the newsletter neglected to cover the story of Florida-based journalist Tim Burke, who had his home newsroom raided by FBI agents in May.

As of December 20, Burke is “still awaiting the return of nine computers and other equipment” that were seized.” Some files were returned, but he cannot resume his work as a journalist. “It's a little like someone taking your car and then giving you the gas back,” Burke shared.

Chart included in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker's annual report for 2023

There were fewer incidents of journalists being targeted while covering protests, but multiple incidents occurred as reporters tried to cover pro-Palestinian protests against Israel’s war on Gaza.

“Independent photojournalist Eric Marks was charged with jaywalking in October, and in November, independent journalist Ashoka Jegroo was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct and public radio reporter Alisa Reznick with criminal trespassing,” the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker noted.

Hundreds of journalists have been arrested or wrongfully detained since the tracker began following such incidents in 2017. In that time span, journalists have been granted over $4 million in settlements. There are at least a “dozen similar suits” pending.

Josie Huang, a reporter for KPCC and the LAist, obtained a $700,000 settlement from Los Angeles County and the sheriff’s department in November. They were arrested and assaulted while covering an arrest during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The award was the “largest award to an individual journalist” abused while covering the nationwide uprising against police.