Public knows little about how journalists face locked doors, harassment and abuse

The American general public doesn’t have a clear understanding on how journalists are under stress and are at-risk as they are banned from meetings, personally threatened, or physically attacked in this country. Although the majority of people in this country are upstanding citizens and most governmental personnel are honest, professional individuals, there is a growing base of people who consider themselves beyond the guarantees under the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment.

Photo above: An image taken from the WLTX-TV vehicle as security officers from the Columbia Housing Authority blocked the exit of a parking lot when their reporters were leaving the premises. Both WLTX reporters were handcuffed and arrested. (U.S. Press Tracker photo)

By Sharon Dunten, Editor, SizingUpTheSouth.com

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, a BBC photojournalist has been attacked by an individual at a Trump rally wearing a MAGA hat.

COMMENTARY

Within the southeastern United States or SPJ Region 3’s area of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, there have been numerous documented incidences in the past 15 months where journalists were banned from open meetings, personally intimidated, harassed, threatened, detained, physically attacked or arrested while on duty for their news organizations.

WINK News photojournalist Channing Frampton and reporter Nicole Valdes were recently attacked when a man tried to run over the two journalists in Florida. (U.S. Press Tracker photo)

As reported by and U.S. Press Freedom Trackers, and SizingUpTheSouth.com the southeastern United States and SPJ Region 3’s area have been affected by the following incidents since Dec. 2017.

The Paint Rock, Alabama, city council, wrote a document that the local press acquired that stated that the press and non-residents would not be allowed at their open city council meetings. (SizingUpTheSouth maps)

To clarify one incidence, in August 2018, a small town in Alabama, Paint Rock, banned journalists and non-residents from attending its city council meetings. According to the Alabama Open meeting law, this small group of individuals, who represent a small group of American citizens, took it upon themselves to violate not only an Alabama law but also the First Amendment. Although the Paint Rock’s controversy of wanting to ban the press and non-residents from their open meetings was rectified and the leadership scorn by local media, today’s political atmosphere has somehow given some governmental officials the idea that disobeying state and federal laws is warranted. Is it just plain ignorance? Or is the defiance from government officials toward state and federal laws an instrument to meet their political or personal agendas?

Both Jenna Kurzyna, left, and Susan Ardis were handcuffed and arrested in Columbia, South Carolina, after they were trying to obtain public records from the Columbia Housing Authority. (WLTX photos)

Are government officials going too far by intimidating professional journalists as they seek information that the public has a right to know? Several days ago, two broadcast journalists were handcuffed and arrested for arriving at a government facility in Greenville, SC, to continue an ongoing investigation by acquiring open records at a government facility for which both the public and the media had been given clearance. After returning to the government facility the following week, the two reporters were standing at the doors of the government facility wondering why the doors were locked. They had arrived at the government office so they could once again access to the records. At no time were the reporters nor the general public informed that the office would be closed nor that access to the public records would no longer be available.

These two reporters were then told by government security officers to leave the premises. The reporters identified themselves as reporters of a local television newsroom and returned to their vehicle.

What happened next is only a glimpse of what journalists face everyday as hostilities grow toward the news journalism profession. The two broadcast journalists were handcuffed and arrested. Again, the two reporters were in their vehicle and leaving the premises when the government officers blocked their path out of the parking lot. The officers asked the two reporters to exit their vehicle. After complying, the two reporters were handcuffed and arrested.

Yes, apologies were made by the government agency that employs the security officers and no charges were ordered toward the journalists. Yet, the alleged blatant intimidation that was projected during this incident has made something quite clear: these government officials somehow felt they could play judge and jury with the First Amendment that guarantees the freedom of the press.

And there is so much more that journalists have faced in the southeastern U.S. including: CNN Headquarters in Atlanta and numerous news outlets have received bomb threats; police officers were shooting at journalists in Puerto Rico; Florida journalists were attacked by strangers; journalists continue to receive threatening emails, phone calls and tweets, and government officials have banned journalists from public meetings with closed doors; also more physical attacks against members of the media.

Sometimes it might be premeditated

And also understand that some actions against journalists and newsrooms might actually be premeditated.

Recently, a news journalist confided in me that once a local school board meretriciously set him up to fail. Let me explain how this happened. This local journalist covers a local school board as part of his beat. Unfortunately for the school board, some inappropriate findings at one of its schools were reported by this reporter and published in the local newspaper. The reporter kept on his beat and continued to report on this board and the school system as part of his job.

Because the school board meetings’ attendance by the general public was very low, sometimes the only person who attended the meeting was this particular local newspaper reporter. The school board recognized this. In an alleged retaliation, the school board set up this reporter by presenting false information at the school board meeting that would be reported by this journalist in the next day’s newspaper. Crying fowl after the newspaper came out, the school board president called the editor and publisher the next day saying the reporter was producing “fake news” and the reporter should be fired. Little did the school board know that the reporter had recorded the meeting, which exonerated him from the “fake news” allegation. There was a lot of “he must of misunderstood” that came from the school board afterward when the board was notified that the meeting had been recorded.

Later, another news organization exposed that the school board members had been consistently meeting hours before the board meetings enjoying a taxpayer-paid catered dinners and were making school board decisions out of the eyes and ears of their constituents and the press.

Trump “targets swaths of the press — appears to be escalating” states Committee to Protect Journalists in a 2019 report. (Wiki photo)

Negative rhetoric and tweets from president are escalating

Keep this in mind. The President of the United States has tweeted more than 5400 times to his more than 55.8 million followers and has used 11 percent of those tweets to insult, criticize, condemn and denigrate the news media as a whole, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists in a January 2019 report. Within the CPJ’s database, CPJ has monitored Trump’s negative rhetoric and stated that CPJ is aware of several journalists who say they have been harassed and threatened online. CPJ website states that Trump singles out the media that has increasingly “targeting swaths of the press — appears to be escalating, first from the introduction of ‘fake news’ to ‘opposition party’ and his use of ‘enemy of the people.'” Remember, the term “fake news” did appear in Trump’s tweets until after he was elected.

Sharon Dunten is a freelance writer based out of Atlanta, Georgia. She is the Assistant Regional Director for the Society of Professional Journalists in Region 3 which includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Dunten is also editor of SizingUpTheSouth.com. 

sdunten.spjregion3@gmail.com