Journalist arrests down but reporters covering protests still at risk

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Arrest Report 2022

LLN Arizona photographer Jack Sorgi is detained at a June reproductive rights protest in Phoenix.

NEWS2SHARE/SEAN CAMPBELL

Freedom of the Press Foundation’s U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports 14 arrests of journalists in 2022, down from 59 in 2021 and 144 in 2020. As in past years, the vast majority of reporters arrested were covering protests, specifically those that followed the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

The decrease is less likely attributable to police suddenly respecting press freedoms than to there simply being fewer protests this year than in 2021, and especially 2020. Nearly 300 arrests or detainments of journalists have been recorded in the Tracker since its 2017 launch; 18 of those journalists are still facing charges.

Arrest Report 2022 chart

As of Dec. 20, 2022

Freedom of the Press Foundation/Harris Lapiroff

Totals aside, it is concerning any time a reporter is arrested for doing their job, and especially when charges are not resolved promptly by the courts. The report highlights two especially alarming cases: One, the arrest of Derek Myers, editor-in-chief of the Scioto Valley Guardian in Ohio, for wiretapping after publishing audio someone else recorded, and two, the ongoing prosecutions of Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit for allegedly trespassing while documenting a homeless encampment sweep.

The report provides further detail:

Myers told the Tracker he was covering the murder trial but was not in the courtroom when a key witness took the stand. Despite the judge in the case barring recordings of that witness, Myers later received audio of the testimony. After the Guardian published the audio, officers obtained a search warrant for Myers’ laptop, issued a warrant for his arrest and seized his cellphone.

Myers turned himself in to police custody and was released on a $20,000 bond. He now waits for his case to be heard by a grand jury in 2023, which will decide whether to indict him. But just being charged, he said, has felt damaging.

“My reputation has taken a hit and, as journalists, all we have are our reputations,” Myers said.

Two North Carolina journalists, arrested in December 2021, will also continue to face charges into 2023. Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested and charged with trespassing while documenting a homeless encampment sweep on Christmas night in 2021. After nearly a year of rescheduled hearings, the two were ordered in November to appear for a bench hearing, where a judge would rule on their charges and sentence them.

….

Bliss told the Tracker that each time they were ordered to appear in court, the reporters had to prepare for the possibility they would be incarcerated.

“I was trying to make sure that I had all my ducks in a row in case it was the worst case scenario: There is a maximum penalty of 20 days in jail,” Bliss said. “We’ve both had to make lots of sacrifices throughout this year.”

Myers’ arrest violates well-established Supreme Court precedent that journalists are not responsible for alleged illegality by sources while Asheville police ignored limitations on closure of public lands to reporters except where there is a serious public safety risk.

The report also notes that some wrongly arrested reporters are holding authorities accountable by filing lawsuits, including Oregon-based reporter April Ehrlich, who was also arrested while covering an encampment sweep. After multiple delays, prosecutors dropped the 2020 charges this year. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker previously reported on the more than 50 journalists who have sued over their treatment while covering Black Lives Matter protests.

Absent any indication that local police departments learned a lesson from 2020 and 2021, lawsuits and public pressure continue to be the best ways to hold police accountable and make them think twice about arresting journalists in 2023.

The full report, including more detailed statistical analysis and context surrounding the arrests, is available here.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is a nonpartisan news website and database providing reliable and contextualized information on the number of press freedom violations in the United States. For media requests, please contact [email protected]

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