Reporters are not demonstrators

Monday, November 29, 2010

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The First Amendment is not a secondary concern.

That simple and obvious statement is disregarded by police and municipal authorities when they arrest journalists who are reporting on controversial protests.

In the process they debase all of our rights of free speech, press and assembly — three of the core freedoms in the First Amendment specifically delineated by the Founders to protect us against government suppression of points of view, speech and news reports.

Blatant disregard for the role of a free press has included wholesale arrests at the last two national political conventions — including journalists from the Associated Press, a radio talk show and some documentary filmmakers — and demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and in Seattle some years ago. In those instances, patterns were set: arrests made, charges dropped, and later monetary settlements over rights violations.

The only description for all this is government misconduct and suppression of freedom of the press, subsidized by taxpayer funds.

The latest example of this outrageous situation may well be the recent arrest Nov. 20 of two credentialed reporters who were covering a protest against the U.S. military training center formerly known as the “School of the Americas” at Fort Benning, Ga.

A YouTube video shows Kaelyn Forde, an American citizen who works for a Russian TV network, being handcuffed and led to a bus holding protesters who also were arrested. The video does not show what led to her arrest, but Forde can be heard saying on the video, “I'm sorry. I'm a member of the press … I was asked to move. I moved over here and now they're arresting me … why?”

The network said in a news release that Forde and cameraman Jon Conway were arrested despite having “complied with all the requirements of the police, including the demand not to approach the fort's entrance.” No word on whether these charges will stick.

OK, so some might feel a lack of sympathy on the latest example because of Forde’s affiliation with a Russian news operation. But the Columbus, Ga., Ledger-Enquirer reported that police also threatened to arrest one of its reporters who was covering the demonstration.

The Associated Press reported that Muscogee County jail records show Forde and Conway were jailed for 29 hours before they were released Nov. 21 on $1,300 bond each, charged with unlawful assembly, demonstrating without a permit and failing to obey a police order to disperse.

The Committee to Protect Journalists — whose work often involves opposing dictators in foreign lands — has called for an internal investigation by local police officials. What a boon it is to those repressive regimes around the world when American police, with tacit or outright approval from local officials, grossly ignore the obvious — that journalists are doing their jobs by being present at the scene of demonstrations or protests.

Newsgathering is as essential a part of press freedom as the ability to publish freely without government meddling. Reporters are not demonstrators. As a nation, we need to see reports on unpopular events in our communities as well accounts of events that the majority favors.

The nation’s Founders did not want government to decide whether this or that opinion should be promoted or suppressed. Our ancestors fought the Revolutionary War to end such policies.

Those who place our basic rights as secondary to the convenient rubric of “public safety” — or worse, a tawdry mix of public convenience and political pandering to the popular view — should be ashamed. And, when appropriate, prosecuted.

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