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Civil Rights and Press Freedom One Year After Occupy

September 18, 2012

This article by Josh Stearns is re-posted from Free Press.

One year ago the Occupy movement took root in a small square in New York City. From there it would ripple out across the nation over a matter of weeks and months.

A week after that initial occupation the first reporter, John Farley from local PBS station WNET Thirteen, was arrested by the NYPD. Like the occupations, the press suppression and journalist arrests spread throughout the U.S.

As press and protesters headed back to Zuccotti Park this weekend, reports suggest that three more journalists were arrested, bringing the total number of journalists arrested while covering Occupy Wall Street and other U.S. protests in the last year to well over 90, almost half of which were in New York City. Credentialed mainstream reporters, citizen journalists, freelancers and live-streamers all ended up behind bars over the course of the year. Today, remarkably, a number of those journalists are still facing charges.

Across the country, the response to the arrests varied city by city. Press freedom groups sent letters and held meetings with police departments, 40,000 people contacted their mayors calling for stronger protections for the First Amendment, and 16,000 people sent messages of support to the arrested journalists.

The attacks on press were troubling on many levels but particularly because media making was such a central part of the Occupy movement. From tweets to blog posts, pictures to streaming video, Occupy made strategic use of the Web from day one and inspired a new generation of activist journalists who chronicled the movement. While covering the NATO protests this summer in Chicago, Laurie Penny tweeted that “In 2012, youth power’s equivalent of the peace v-sign is the camera phone held aloft.”

The threats that those covering Occupy faced remind us that when anyone can commit acts of journalism, we need everyone to be advocates for press freedom. Matt Taibbi points to the University of California Davis police officer who pepper-sprayed a group of students on campus during a peaceful protest as evidence of what is at risk if we don’t fiercely defend our rights. He writes that:

“What happened at U.C. Davis was the inevitable result of our failure to make sure our government stayed in the business of defending our principles. When we stopped insisting on that relationship with our government, they became something separate from us.”

Occupy Wall Street has helped highlight this divide, especially as it applies to press freedom. The almost weekly journalist arrests put First Amendment rights in the spotlight at a moment when journalism was (and continues to be) in a state of profound change. For the most part, when we talk about the fundamental changes happening in the media, we focus on business models or modes of production and distribution. Indeed, on Twitter and Storify, via live-stream and even in print publications like the Occupied Wall Street Journal journalistic experimentation and a robust hacker culture was alive and well around Occupy.

Citizen journalism in its current form has been around for well over a decade, but Occupy help legitimize it as citizens reported with independence, tenacity and honesty from the streets. Live-streamers were profiled by mainstream media and their footage carried on news websites from NBC to the Washington Post.

However, Occupy also illustrated that as the media models change, our law enforcement agencies and institutions are struggling to catch up. New questions were raised about press credentialing laws and the wisdom of allowing police departments to define who is and who is not considered a member of the press. Too often, in the heat of the moment when police were surrounded by cameras, police took an “arrest now and ask questions latter” approach. Meanwhile city officials relied on old definitions of journalists, or tried to rewrite history entirely.

Back in December, Robert Stolarik, a photographer for the New York Times, caught an NYPD officer on video as he tried to stop Stolarik from photographing the arrest of citizen journalists at an Occupy protest. Last month, Stolarik was arrested again while working at a crime scene. According to a report in the Times, officers “took his cameras and dragged him to the ground,” and “he said that he was kicked in the back and that he received scrapes and bruises to his arms, legs and face.” Many other journalists covering Occupy walked away bruised and bloodied by police this year.

Occupy Wall Street, along with tragic incidents in Mexico, Syria and around the world, reminded us that many journalists put their bodies and their freedom on the line when they seek to bear witness to civil unrest. When we put our bodies on the line, they not only become symbols but also targets.

Writing about Occupy Glenn Greenwald argues, “If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist.” Thankfully, even in the face of arrest and harassment, night after night, journalists and live-streamers, bloggers and photographers are back on the streets, covering the protests. If the past year teaches us anything about the future of journalism, it is that the First Amendment depends on all of us.

Photo credit: Courtesy of yfrog.com

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