There Was a 1,200% Increase in Journalist Arrests in 2020
Journalists are being arrested at a staggering and alarming rate — part of a larger crackdown on protest in the U.S.
On May 30, 2020, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his camera crew were reporting from Minneapolis on the protests that had erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. While Jiminez was providing his view from the ground to CNN viewers (and still standing far away from any action that could be considered dangerous), he was approached and arrested by a group of police officers.
While the incident received significant outcry (and millions of views across social media), Jimenez turned out to be only the first of almost two dozen journalists who were arrested in Minnesota that week. Over the course of the year, he was one of over 100 reporters to be arrested while covering Black Lives Matter and election-related protests.
The Jimenez arrest was the start of a disturbing trend: Across the United States, journalists are being arrested for doing their job at a truly unprecedented rate.
A new report, issued by Freedom of the Press Foundation, where I am executive director, details the staggering statistics: at least 117 verified cases of journalists being arrested while doing their job in 2020, with more than a dozen more cases still being investigated. The numbers represent a 1,200% jump in the number of journalists arrested compared with last year.
In fact, more journalists were arrested in one week (May 29- June 4) than in the previous three years combined. And over the course of the year, at least 40 cities saw at least one journalist arrested by police. Around 26% of those arrested were also assaulted by the police while the arrest occurred.
As the report details, the violence from police officers came in many different forms.. For example, HuffPost reporter Christopher Mathias was hit with a baton in the stomach before being arrested in the New York borough of Brooklyn. NBC journalist Simon Moya-Smith was pepper-sprayed as he was complying with orders to get on the ground, before being loaded into a police van. A reporter in New Jersey, Asbury Park Press’s Gustavo Martínez Contreras, was one of many journalists tackled to the ground before being cuffed — even though he wasn’t resisting.
Many of the incidents, caught on livestream or broadcast, underscore how often reporters’ rights are abused by authority figures: Over and over, journalists, wearing visible press passes and often cameras, and in many instances, removed from the center of action, are purposefully targeted by police.
The new report’s shocking numbers and harrowing stories have been compiled and independently verified by a small team of reporters at the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a joint project between Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
And truth be told, these 117 arrests only scratch the surface of what journalists have had to experience this year. In 2019, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker cataloged 150 violations including assaults, surveillance orders, court subpoenas, and the denial of access to public events; this year, well over 1,000 credible press freedom incidents have been reported to the Tracker.
While it’s easy to blame President Trump’s “enemy of the people’’ rhetoric for emboldening police officers to flagrantly disregard journalists’ rights, these issues are much more systematic than our 45th president. While Trump certainly throws fuel on the fire, the vast majority of arrests were carried out by local or state police, in cities and municipalities controlled by Democrats as well as Republicans.
It’s certainly not the first time in recent history we’ve seen a significant number of journalists arrested either. Dozens were arrested covering the Occupy protests in 2011, in Ferguson Missouri in 2014, and at the Standing Rock protests in 2016. It’s the nationwide scale that is unprecedented.
As of now, at least 17 journalists still face criminal proceedings for doing their job. They’ve been failed systematically: at the local, state, and federal level. No police officer has been criminally charged for illegally arresting a journalist.
It’s time for authorities to punish police officers who violate the constitutional rights of journalists. If they don’t, officers will only be encouraged to crack down harder on both protesters and journalists, curtailing the public’s access to vital reporting and documentary evidence of our most significant — and sometimes tragic — moments.