By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: How do you measure a year? In minutes, hours, days, months? Journalists often measure a year by news events, the everyday occurrences that capture our attention, divide us, unite us and make us think. By the good, the bad, the ugly. The highs and lows.
One month into 2015, Right to Report is looking back on the moments in 2014 that gave us pause to think about this complex world in which we live, about the stories, pixels, tweets, blog posts and videos that exasperated us, lifted our spirits, changed our thinking and emboldened us to continue the fight for freedom of the press.
The year may have begun at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2014 but Right to Report was born five months later on June 3, 2014, when we launched the website and blog as part of a national campaign launched by The Newspaper Guild to raise a strong and consistent objection to government policies and activities that curtail freedom of speech and limit public access to information that’s central to our democracy.
Here are a few Right to Report stories, newsmakers and headlines that defined 2014:
- On June 2, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from James Risen, a Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times reporter and Guild-member facing jail time for refusing to identify a confidential source.
- June also saw the Senate fail to act on the Free Flow of Information Act, a national shield law endorsed by The Newspaper Guild and 50 other media companies and organizations and three Al-Jazeera reporters sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison by the Egyptian government after a sham trial on spurious terrorism-related charges.
- In August, journalists demanded a meeting with President Obama to discuss the Administration’s lack of transparency, censorship and government surveillance of journalists and media organizations .
The last 12 months fundamentally changed the way news is made, covered and reported, saw crackdowns on journalistic freedoms and sparked critical debates about the rights of citizen journalists and the right to assembly.
Perhaps no event illustrated the assault on freedom of the press in the past year more so than the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. last August. The shooting sparked protests across the nation.
Journalists covering the protests in Ferguson were arrested, threatened with imprisonment and tear-gassed by the police. Incidents in Ferguson ignited a series of disturbing trends which saw government officials charging the media exorbitant fees to obtain public records and a rise in police officers confiscating cell phones, cameras, destroying memory cards and arresting journalists and ordinary citizens legally recording or photographing them in public.
The news of 2014 also included the bizarre.
Consider the case of the F.B.I. agent who in 2007 posed as a reporter for the Associated Press in planting an online story to catch a teenager bomb threat suspect outside Seattle, Washington. Or revelations that the National Press Club refused to let the media cover a speech made by a State Department official last October, claiming the speech was “off-the-record.” Or the number of times, President Obama contradicted his own open government policy.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2014.
Yes, we lost a journalism giant last October with the death of Ben Bradlee, the principled, charismatic executive-editor of The Washington Post. It was also a year that spawned a global effort making freedom of the press a priority in the global development agenda set by the United Nations and its member states.
There were other high points and highlights in the year:
- In August, state courts in Iowa and Wyoming upheld the media’s right to open court proceedings and to photograph court cases.
- That same month, the New York City Police Department, the nation’s largest police force, issued an internal memo that firmly reminded New York City police officers that the public is legally allowed to record officers and police activity.
- In October, James Risen received the Newspaper Guild’s Herblock Freedom Award and seized the moment to speak out about the national assault on freedom of the press. In accepting the Guild’s highest honor, Risen told a Guild audience that the government’s crackdown on whistleblowers and leaks was an urgent threat to America’s free press and demands that journalists speak up and fight back.
- In December, Guild President Bernie Lunzer offered to spearhead a meeting between media groups in the California Bay area and Berkeley mayor, city officials and the city’s police officers to discuss ways to avoid conflicts between police and journalists doing their jobs.
Finally, 2014 may also have set the tone for 2015.
The year began on a tragic note. Twelve people, including nine journalists, were killed by two masked gunmen at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French newspaper that published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The gunmen, claiming to belong to Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, said the attacks were in retaliation for the paper’s controversial cartoon depictions of Muhammad.
In the wake of the deadly attacks, media companies around the world were divided over whether to publish or broadcast a cover cartoon of the Prophet published in the paper one week later.
The beginning of the year also brought an end to the government’s eight-year long persecution of James Risen. Federal prosecutors threatened to jail Risen, if he didn’t testify in a trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer, suspected of leaking classified information to him. Risen said he would go to jail before identifying any sources. On Jan. 26, Sterling was convicted on nine felony counts without Risen’s cooperation or testimony.
What lies ahead in the months to come is uncertain. But there have been indications that the continued attacks on First Amendment freedoms may have galvanized Americans. Protests that began last August grew exponentially as thousands took to the streets to demonstrate outrage over police attacks on free assembly.
Government officials aren’t likely to be any more open or transparent in the New Year than they were in the past but the media has shown a willingness to fight their battle for a free press through legal, political and personal channels, if necessary.
A Federal Shield law will once again be on the Congressional agenda but won’t likely see the light of day under a new Republican-controlled Congress without strong outside lobbying from media organizations and First Amendment advocates.
Journalism will continue to be redefined, reshaped and transformed in the New Year, expanding its scope, reach and purpose in a changing media environment. The Newspaper Guild and its members can and must play a vital role in forging change that protects the fundamentals of journalisms, the rights of journalists and the rights of individuals to access information.