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May 21, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:18am

2021 already worse than 2017, 2018 and 2019 for journalist attacks and arrests in US

By William Turvill

There were at least 100 cases of US journalists being arrested or attacked in the first four months of this year – topping annual totals for 2017, 2018 and 2019 – new figures show.

A Press Gazette analysis of US Press Freedom Tracker data finds there have been 59 recorded physical attacks on journalists so far this year and 41 arrests or detainments.

The 100 incidents – some of which may overlap in cases where reporters have been arrested and attacked – mean 2021 press freedom violations have already surpassed 2017 (when 88 arrests and attacks were recorded), 2018 (46) and 2019 (44).

Last year, the tracker recorded 441 attacks and 139 arrests/detainments, with many of the incidents occurring around the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the nation in late May.

[This interview first featured in Press Gazette’s ‘Future of News – US’ newsletter. Click here to sign up and receive this content first.]

Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the US Press Freedom Tracker, told Press Gazette that “January-April 2021 press freedom violations are the highest that we have ever tracked” in the first four months of the year (see graph below).

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“What we saw in 2020 was just out of the water for us,” she says. “I had to stop using the word ‘unprecedented’.”

The US Press Freedom Tracker started collecting data in 2017. McCudden says that, in one week last summer, “we saw more press freedom violations than we had tracked before.

“It was fair to use ‘unprecedented’ then. But we didn’t know what was ahead – which was protests were going to continue and be re-sparked by the grand jury [decision in the case of] Breonna Taylor, [the shooting of] Jacob Blake – you had deaths of other black people across the US.”

She adds: “What has happened in 2021 is a series of sometimes related, sometimes not, events that each have brought us press freedom violations to journalists working in the field.”

A notable difference between 2020 and 2021, she says, is that law enforcement officials were responsible for more than 80% of Black Lives Matter assaults on journalists last year. This year, around the Capitol riots of 6 January, a higher proportion of attacks were made by “private individuals”.

[This interview first featured in Press Gazette’s ‘Future of News – US’ newsletter. Click here to sign up and receive this content first.]

As a result of this increased threat, newsrooms and journalists across the US are having to take extra precautions.

Last year, Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J Adler told Press Gazette how he was equipping his journalists with flak jackets and gas masks to cover the US presidential election.

In January, the Committee to Protect Journalists advised that reporters covering Joe Biden’s inauguration should avoid wearing lanyards.

“Some newsrooms have agreed with their journalists to not wear lanyards,” says McCudden. “Some feel that it is a choking hazard now, and it can be yanked… I know some newsrooms went to essentially taping it on or thinking of it like a ski pass that goes inside a [pocket]… 

“So yeah, newsrooms are making changes. And not just newsrooms – individual journalists. In Portland, [some] of the journalists wear goggles. There are a lot of chemical irritants being used, and they just daily wear goggles.”

Photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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