Non-freedom of the press in the US

Jun 16, 2012 12:00 AM

With Occupy Wall Street shedding light on police brutality and arrests that the US has not seen in a while, America has also seen journalists getting arrested – for simply having a press pass that the police doesn’t deem appropriate.
How is this affecting the state of press freedom in the country?

Dramatic scenes unfolding in the US during Occupy Wall Street clashes with police have been a must-cover event for a journalist. Kirill Belyaninov – a correspondent for a Russian daily newspaper Kommersant – got arrested while reporting on the protests. No muss – no fuss.
“They just put handcuffs on me. I tried to tell him that I am a journalist. He pulled out my State Department accreditation and asked whether I have a New York police one. Unfortunately, that one expired,” explained Kirill.

The reporter has been working in the US for the last three years.
“Whatever proof you have – they don’t really care. It’s just business, and your credentials can’t really protect you,” he said.

Sent through a whirlpool-like legal system, the seasoned journalist was treated as a protest participant under arrest. 24 hours behind bars, a quick trial, $ 600 in fines were his punishment – for doing his job – covering the news of the day. And then there were the two days of community service.
“They put you in a van, take you right over here to sanitation station, give you brooms, trash cans and shovels, and you are basically walking around sweeping the streets, picking up the debris, paper, cigarette butts, whatever,” the correspondent remembered.

Kirill is now on probation for six months.
“It is an outrage. In a country that professes to have an undying respect for the freedom of the press, to be throwing reporters in jail,” said Joshua Holland, editor and senior writer at AlterNet.

It may be an outrage, but this case is not unique. Rather, it’s part of a dangerous trend in the US.
“When they let the state control who is a journalist – that’s just propaganda,” said Tim Pool – an independent journalist who has witnessed police reject press passes on a state by state basis throughout Occupy Wall Street protests. “In New York, they don’t care even if you have a press pass. I’ve watched a cop grab a journalist with his press pass, throw him on the ground. I’ve seen supervisors call out to grab a journalist’s press pass and take it from him,” Pool added.

“In Oakland, they require a local Oakland press pass. In New York, they’ve been rejecting press passes from other jurisdictions. We have a First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press.”
“There is nothing in the law which allows police agencies to determine which press are legitimate press and which are not,” said Joshua Holland.

Acquiring a press pass in order to cover breaking news has also been sending journalists through a vicious circle. Not of just paperwork, but also of having to play a guessing game of which state they might be in next to cover a story – a near impossibility in the fast paced world of news.
“You have to prove that you’ve covered breaking news but it’s hard to cover breaking news when the police won’t let you. So it creates this catch 22. Takes several months. Finally, if they like the news you’re making, they’ll let you get a pass,” said Tim Pool.

Arbitrary or unattainable press passes demanded , journalists arrested for covering the news – the constitutional concept of media freedom seems to be under siege.
“I think we’re slowly coming into the state of affairs where shooting a video camera is a lot more dangerous to the establishment than shooting a gun,” said activist and journalist Luke Rudkowski.

Choosing to view his arrest as an invaluable “cultural experience”, Kirill treats it with humour.
“I got two articles out of the experience, so it’s a pretty good outcome for me,” he said.

Freedom of the press in America – a first-hand account.

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