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Defend journalism that speaks truth to power from Ferguson to Washington

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"President Obama’s Department of Justice must drop its threats to imprison journalists, including New York Timesreporter James Risen, in its overzealous Espionage Act prosecutions. Instead, it should focus on making it clear to local and state law enforcement agencies that intimidating and arresting journalists, as has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, is absolutely unconstitutional. Harassing journalists violates one of the most basic premises of the American experiment, denying citizens the information they need to address abuses of power at every level of the government."

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    Defend journalism that speaks truth to power from Ferguson to Washington

    Over the past two weeks our nation has watched in horror as a militarized local police force unleashed an assault on peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of an unarmed African American youth. CREDO is working with allies including ColorOfChange to call for justice for Michael Brown.1

    At the same time, there is another crisis unfolding. A crisis that stretches from suburban St. Louis to the U.S. Department of Justice. Law enforcement officials on the streets of Ferguson and along the corridors of power in Washington have, by targeting of journalists for harassment, arrest and possible imprisonment, assaulted a pillar of democracy.

    In an important essay published this week, The Nation makes the connection between Ferguson and White House attacks on journalists and the dangers they pose for democracy. John Nichols writes:

    When journalists are harassed, intimidated, threatened and detained, the basic premise of democracy—that the great mass of people, armed with information and perspective, and empowered to act upon it, will set right that which is made wrong by oligarchs—is assaulted.2

    Tell Pres. Obama: Defend journalism that speaks truth to power from Ferguson to Washington.

    On the ground in Ferguson, local police authorities have repeatedly intimidated, detained and arrested journalists, creating unreasonable and unconscionable barriers to reporting that tells the story of broader assaults on the civil rights and civil liberties of protesters. Following the police killing of Michael Brown, reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post were shockingly roughed up and arrested by police while documenting protest.3 Over the next several days, police shot tear gas canisters at a camera crew, and when the media personnel were forced to flee police shockingly dismantled their camera and lights -- creating a glaring example of a police agency literally shutting down public scrutiny.4 By Tuesday of this week, at least 11 U.S. and foreign journalists had been arrested, while dozens had complained of intimidation by the police.

    Even President Obama had to address the clearly unacceptable physical assaults on journalists in Ferguson saying: “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.”5

    Despite this statement, President Obama has sanctioned a high profile federal attack on journalists, and his administration has invoked the Espionage Act against whistleblowers more times than all previous presidents combined.6

    Nichols makes this connection writing:

    On the very same day that the president was objecting to the bullying of journalists in Ferguson, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and other journalism groups demanded that the federal government halt legal actions against New York Times reporter James Risen, who has been threatened with prosecution if he does not reveal the names of confidential sources for his groundbreaking 2006 book, State of War.7

    Tell Pres. Obama: Defend journalism that speaks truth to power from Ferguson to Washington.

    Our Bill of Rights enshrines the freedom of the press, along with the freedom to assemble peacefully, in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s the role of the federal government to defend the Bill of Rights and protect journalists from any entity that would violate the freedom of the press — not to lead the charge to put journalists in jail as it is threatening to do with New York Times reporter James Risen.

    It’s not just journalism that’s at risk, it’s our very democracy. Which is why The Nation and John Nichols are calling for a new movement to defend journalism:

    What is at stake is a free and open society; and it is not enough that the most egregious wrongs have been identified and decried. The culture, the climate, in which those wrongs occur so frequently, must change. It must change because the journalism that goes to places like Ferguson, the gets behind the façade of institutions like the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, that demands accountability from street cops and presidents, is much more than an exercise in information gathering. It is the vital link that gives citizens the information they need to bend the arc of history toward justice. There is no middle ground in this regard. Americans are either going to defend speak-truth-to-power journalism and vibrant democracy—as part of a broad reassertion of First Amendment rights—or they are going to have to settle for propaganda and oligarchy.8

    The movement to defend journalism needs to be fought on many fronts. It should seek Congressional action to enact a shield law to protect journalists and whistleblowers. It needs to put in place strong open records and open meetings laws at the local, state and federal level. It ought to ensure law enforcement from the FBI to local police are trained and given clear guidance from the federal government that freedom of the press must be protected. It has to fight to make sure that our judges whether appointed or elected will stand up for the first amendment and put the free speech rights of the people before those of the corporations.

    But first and foremost, this movement must demand that President Obama’s Department of Justice stop attacking journalists via its overzealous Espionage Act prosecutions, and start acting to defend journalists, who are targeted by local and state law enforcement agencies seeking to deprive Americans of the truth.

    Tell Pres. Obama: Defend journalism that speaks truth to power from Ferguson to Washington.

    “Where assaults on the gatherers and purveyors of popular information occur, those assaults must be challenged immediately,” Nichols writes in The Nation9

    Please join me in standing with The Nation and calling on President Obama to defend democracy and take action immediately to end the war on journalists.

    1. "Justice for Mike Brown,"
    2. "Defend Journalism That Speaks Truth to Power: From Ferguson to Washington," The Nation, August 18, 2014.
    3. ibid.
    4. ibid.
    5. "If police in Ferguson treat journalists like this, imagine how they treat residents,", August 18, 2014.
    6. "Obama Has Charged More Under Espionage Act Than All Other Presidents Combined,", June 22, 2013.
    7. "Defend Journalism That Speaks Truth to Power: From Ferguson to Washington," The Nation, August 18, 2014.
    8. ibid.
    9. ibid.