Threats to Press Come in Many Forms. Some Are Violent.

June 14, 2023
Violence against journalists includes attacks on environmental reporters as well. Above, officials search for murdered journalist Dom Phillips in Brazil’s Amazon region. He and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were killed while investigating illegal extractive industries. Photo: Cícero Pedrosa Neto/Amazônia Real via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

WatchDog Opinion: Threats to Press Come in Many Forms. Some Are Violent.

By Joseph A. Davis

Sometimes reporters covering violence become the targets of violence themselves. A free press is not really free when constrained by violence or the threat of it. That is already happening in the United States.

The invaluable Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press recently did a four-part package on this — based on real-life incidents cataloged by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. It’s not a happy story.


‘We are sadly seeing journalism become an

increasingly dangerous profession in the

United States and it should not be this way.’

                                                            — Bruce Brown,

                                                            Reporters Committee


“We are sadly seeing journalism become an increasingly dangerous profession in the United States and it should not be this way,” Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown was quoted as saying.

Physical violence is only part of it — although the Tracker has tolled more than 1,000 assaults on U.S. reporters since 2017.

Others are arrested. Some face subpoenas, equipment damage, access restrictions or prior restraints. Often the assaults on press freedom come from police during street demonstrations. But nowadays threats come also from thugs, bystanders and domestic terrorists, not to mention trolls, doxxers, haters and harassers.

Etched in our minds is the image of insurrectionists trying to destroy tens of thousands of dollars worth of broadcast equipment near the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

What reporters do is report: So it was fitting when Las Vegas Review-Journal staff finished the investigation started by murdered journalist and colleague Jeff German. It led to an arrest. And it reminds us of the origin story of Investigative Reporters and Editors, which blew the lid off of the murder of reporter Don Bolles in 1976.


Environmental journalists are not exempt

Violence also is waged against environmental journalists. In June 2022 journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were murdered in Brazil’s remote Amazon region, where they were investigating illegal fishing and other extractive industries.

Now, a year later, The Guardian (for whom Phillips often reported) is publishing its “Bruno and Dom Project,” which exposes even more broadly the ways that organized crime destroys the rainforest.

Oh yes, environmental journalists do cover windy and boring meetings. But there is also an abundance of “direct actions” and demonstrations to cover as well. We like best the ones where the blood is fake and the demonstrators invite the press to watch them glue themselves to the glass case of a painting (Pro tip: Use acetone to remove super glue). The environmental beat abounds in outrage, anger and “resistance,” passive or otherwise.

As we watch cable news, we are reminded of how the news business thrives on conflict, outrage, anger, suffering and violence — because audiences gravitate toward those things despite their better natures. Sometimes some journalists amplify the conflict.


Risks of reporting on contested space

Environmental journalism, even more than other beats, is often about place — and to report on a place-bound subject, a journalist needs to go to, and observe, a place. Sometimes a contested place. That’s often where the trouble starts.

A recent example was the protest over the Coastal GasLink pipeline in British Columbia. Amber Bracken, a freelance photojournalist, was arrested in November 2021 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as she was covering a resistance camp on traditional Wet'suwet'en territory. Charges were ultimately dropped. But she, along with The Narwhal, the publication that hired her, ended up suing the Mounties.


One journalist was arrested, ...

caught up in a red-state law that

elevated charges against people who

entered a pipeline right-of-way to protest.


Similarly, journalist Karen Savage was arrested (twice) in 2018 as she was covering the protest against the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana. Yes, the charges were dropped. But the problem was that she had gotten caught up in a Louisiana law, copied by other red states, that elevated charges against people who entered a pipeline right-of-way to protest. Contested space.

Freelancers are journalists, and they should get the same protections as other journalists. But what exactly are those protections? The First Amendment may theoretically give journalists the right to observe any activity from a public space. But street smarts say when a cop tells you to move, you move.

Journalists should start with sensible self-protection and with knowing the rules. There are a lot of guides, but a good one comes from the SPJ Toolbox, produced by Mike Reilley and the Society of Professional Journalists. Tips range from wearing your credentials to how to handle tear gas and deal with the mental health fallout from violence.

One partial solution would be a law protecting journalists from this kind of assault (including police assault). No, we do not think the current Congress could pass such a law. But a future one could. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has introduced one called the Journalist Protection Act, which makes it a federal crime to assault a journalist. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) has put up a measure in the House.

[Disclosure: SEJournal Editor Adam Glenn recently joined the staff of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which is the editorial lead for the coalition that produces the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 24. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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