Press Freedom in Peril?

Was there a "crackdown" on reporters covering Occupy Wall Street?

If you followed the mainstream media’s coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests earlier this fall, you might have a number of concerns about the state of the American press. For instance, you might be concerned about what the media’s fawning coverage of OWS, which included whitewashing racism and anti-Semitism on the part of OWS participants, says about the press corps’ ability to provide fair and politically dispassionate coverage. Similarly, you might wonder if the volumes of newsprint devoted to an anarchic and often-violent campaign that had no coherent or cohesive agenda might indicate badly confused priorities on the part of media gatekeepers.

One thing you likely would not think is that the extensive coverage of OWS indicated a dramatic decline in American press freedom. That is, unless you were the France-based journalism watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RWB). In the latest version of its annual report on global press freedom, RBW downgraded the U.S. 27 spots, to number 47 in the world. To put this in perspective: By RWB's measure, the United States, home of the First Amendment, sits just a few notches above Haiti.

RWB's justification for the dramatic markdown is an alleged "crackdown" on reporters covering OWS. As RWB's report puts it, the U.S.’s precipitous fall in the rankings reflects “the crackdown on protest movements and the accompanying excesses” that “took their toll on journalists.” In two months, RWB's report says, “more than 25 [journalists] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behavior, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.”

As others have noted, this justification is patently ridiculous. In any meaningful comparison, the United States is unrivaled in the freedom it affords its press. But you would hardly know it from the RWB report, which holds the U.S. to a standard imposed on no other nation. Thus, Hungary's ruling party passed a law granting the government direct control over the media, in effect killing the country’s independent press, yet Hungary fell fewer spots in RWB's rankings than did the United States. Meanwhile RWB singled out for praise a country like Niger, which came in at 29th in the world in press freedom – this despite the fact that journalists in the country are routinely harassed by state security agencies, the government has a commanding control of broadcasting services, and a corrupt judiciary ensures widespread self-censorship by the press. Despite that, the U.S. still fares worse in RWB's rankings.

These comparisons are bad enough. Even evaluated on its own terms, though, RWB's claim that journalists covering OWS were the victims of a "crackdown" fails to withstand serious scrutiny. While it's true and regrettable that some professional journalists were arrested amidst police crackdowns on OWS protests, those arrests were inadvertent. In making these arrests, police frequently were unable to distinguish between professional journalists and so-called "citizen journalists," who were, in effect, OWS activists.

At New York's Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the OWS protests, one of the first journalists to be arrested by police was John Farley, a reporter for local online magazine MetroFocus, who was swept up by police with other protestors. Although justifiably unhappy to be arrested, Farley wondered how "in a sudden burst of urban chaos" can "the police distinguish between passersby and protesters who may be committing civil disobedience or any other type of punishable offense? Or between citizen journalists and professional journalists?”

Unfortunately for some reporters, police couldn't always make that distinction. The police's ability to discern between journalists and activists was further complicated by the fact that even many professional journalists, including Farley, were not carrying NYPD-issued accreditation. One can sympathize with the plight of these arrested reporters while recognizing that neither they nor the press generally were the police's intended targets.

If blame is to be assigned for journalists’ arrests, a large share of it should go to the OWS protesters themselves. Whether through acts of outright violence, such as throwing glass bottles and bags of garbage and other projectiles at police, or by refusing to vacate a privately owned public park despite repeated orders to do so, the OWS protestors provoked a police response. It is not to excuse the more heavy-handed tactics to which police resorted to point out that they were forced to act by the violent and criminal conduct of OWS protestors.

Just as evicting the protestors from a privately owned park did not constitute suppression of free speech, neither do the collateral arrests of journalists covering the OWS protests signal growing curtailment of press freedom in the U.S. Considering that journalists are purposely and aggressively targeted by governments across the world, it is particularly outrageous for RWB to equate the OWS arrests with persecution of the press. To suggest that the active targeting and murder of journalists in Russia (to take one example of many) and the incidental arrests of journalists in a police roundup of violent rioters in the U.S. are somehow commensurate in their impact on press freedom is moral equivalence on a gross and indefensible scale.

With press freedom genuinely imperiled across the world, RWB's downgrade of the U.S. seems to be little more than an attention-grabbing stunt. In the final analysis, RWB's report highlights a decline not of the freedom of the press but of its seriousness. Those who kept up with the media’s cheerleading coverage of OWS would not have failed to notice the trend.