“What happens on the ground?”
In 1965, 600 marchers assembled in Selma, Alabama to march to Montgomery for the voting rights of Black citizens. Press coverage of this event played a large role in the world seeing Americans non-violently protesting for their rights and being met with violent opposition by police and officials.
When the protestors reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, State troopers ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the troopers shot tear gas into the crowd and beat them. More than 50 were hospitalized, which is how the event got its name “Bloody Sunday.” Former White House Correspondent and NBC Reporter Richard Valeriani was covering the march when he was attacked by a man with an axe. When passersby saw the attack, they didn’t help for one reason: he was a journalist.
He remembers one saying: “We don’t have doctors for people like you.”
Since the 1960s, hostility towards journalists hasn’t gone away. In an April 2018 report Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, found a rise in animosity toward reporters and a decrease in press freedoms, mostly in former Soviet countries but also in the U.S. and other democratic countries. Reporters Without Borders said several democratic leaders “no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning” while singling out President Trump.
To commemorate World Press Freedom Day yesterday, Vox made an Instagram story featuring statistics on press freedom.
Some of Trump’s critics have blamed his “fake news” rhetoric for the arrests of journalists around the world. After a Committee to Project Journalists report showed a record number of 21 journalists were arrested with “false news” charges, Sen. John McCain and Activist Shaun King saw a direct correlation between Trump’s rhetoric and press freedom.
“There’s been a lot more aggression towards the media,” said Boston University Journalism Professor Greg Marinovich. “Has this resulted in any physical attacks? Not that I know of. But I think that’s to come.”
When covering violence in South Africa during the 1990s transition from an apartheid regime to a democracy, Marinovich was shot three times and once fled the country to avoid a 10-year prison sentence.
“My lawyer said ‘I don’t usually tell this to my clients but I think you should buy a flight.’”
His Pulitzer-Prize winning coverage came at several costs. The relationship between the press and the two political parties battling for dominance was strained.
“The old white apartheid government was very negative,” Marinovich said. “And there were a lot of press restrictions, but no one really wanted us covering the war, because the participants would be charged with murder.”
Marinovich has watched the landscape change with the introduction of social media, and believes it’s both “a protector and a threat” to journalists.
“Everyone having a cell phone means they can document your death,” he said smiling, “which is fabulous for the flow of information and truth.”
“But it also seems to have antagonized police and authoritarians more because they don’t want to be outed on social media or appear a week later in some newspaper or magazine or television.”
In 2014, after an unarmed black man named Michael Brown was killed by a Missouri police officer, thousands flocked to Ferguson, MO in protest. Videos from Washington Post Reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post Reporter Ryan Reilly, went viral after they were arrested and assaulted inside of a McDonald’s near the protests for trespassing and not leaving the premises quickly. They were held overnight without explanation and were released in the morning.
“If you think of Ferguson, there were professional journalists being arrested and their cards being taken. Which is completely illegal, but they were doing it,” Marinovich said. “There’s the law and there’s the law, what happens on the ground?”
Journalists being caught in the crossfire at protests is just part of the territory says Valdya Baraputri, a second-year BU graduate student and Metro TV News Indonesia Correspondent.
“I know the difference between Indonesian tear gas and American tear gas,” Baraputri said. “Journalists covering protests should be really careful. When I was in the crowd and the police threw the teargas, they wouldn’t think there were other people in the crowd such as journalists. You should be the one who thinks of your own safety.”
If she were in the situation of the journalists arrested in Ferguson, the support of fellow journalists and her employer would spur her on.
“I know I will not be alone in the aftermath of that incident and that wouldn’t stop me from doing my job.”
Has Trump’s rhetoric made these threats worse for journalists? Possibly. But, Marinovich says Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to have this effect.
“This normally gets ratcheted up, the media is the enemy,” Marinovich said. “Nixon did it, but in other countries at war, it very quickly turns from tolerating the media to attacking the media.”
Baraputri covered Trump’s inauguration, and after hearing him speak negatively about the media she was met with negativity from others as well.
“I talked to this group of people, trying to gauge their thoughts and who they were hoping to see there and I didn’t mention that I was a journalist,” she said. “Then I mentioned that in the middle of our conversation and they started to back away, ‘Oh so you’re media?’ with that kind of negative tone. And I said yes, the same way I would say yes to anyone before the inauguration.”
For Baraputri, and the majority of journalists who answered the following polls, this fear isn’t significant enough to hold them back.
“I’m more concerned that some of us journalists would hyper focus on that fear. Maybe you can see from my answers that I still do my job anyway, I will try my best anyway, I will cover the story anyway,” she said. “That’s my attitude towards the negativity from law enforcement or the negativity brought out by the president. Do your best anyway.”
And if she is ever stopped from entering/covering an event, “that is the news.”