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Interview: Free Press’ Josh Stearns on Importance of Tracking Journalist Arrests

Journalist John Knefel getting arrested by NYPD during Occupy Wall Street's anniversary day of demonstrations

One year ago today, Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street had built an encampment, was raided. During the raid and after, the police arrested a number of journalists and attacked some of them (in addition to the occupiers there who were roughed up and arrested). It was one of the first times that became clear that the New York Police Department and its officers pretty much had no respect for press freedom.

Josh Stearns of Free Press documented the arrests and incidents of press harassment. For about a year now, he has been documenting instances where journalists are targeted, mostly while covering protests. Stearns talked with me about the past year, how he tapped into a network of people to keep his project of tracking journalist arrests going and what he thought about some of the dynamics that have fueled a climate where journalists or media makers are routinely being harassed and/or arrested.


KEVIN GOSZTOLA, The Dissenter: What led you to begin tracking journalist arrests?

JOSH STEARNS, Free Press: I started tracking journalist arrests the first time in 2008 when Amy Goodman and two of her producers as well as an AP photographer and forty other journalists were arrested outside the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. This is in 2008 and at the time we mobilized a rally on the steps of St. Paul City Hall to call for the release of these journalists and the dropping of all charges. As you might now, that settlement came out last year in favor of Amy Goodman and the other journalists that were arrested.

At that time, we were just using an Excel sheet tracking things online, but in 2011, when I saw journalists start to get arrested at Occupy Wall Street, I knew that there would be a better way to do this. So, I started tracking this online using social media and Storify.

At first, it was just wanting to capture the one or two instances I’d heard of but before long I realized that this was much more than a couple people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was really a fundamental shift that was happening with people really disregarding the First Amendment.

I set out to really track these things and tell the story of each individual arrest so I wasn’t just tracking what they were charged with and when they were arrested but actually trying to contextualize what happened when and the follow-up from it. And so, I’ve been doing that now for over a year and we’ve seen about a hundred journalists be arrested in the last year; primarily around Occupy protests but I am increasingly tracking things at the XL pipeline protests and other places where journalists are covering civil unrest.

GOSZTOLA: Talk about journalists coming together to support this effort and how you were able to engage an entire network of people.

STEARNS: I’ve really been able to do a lot of this work thanks to my networks on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. At first, I was pretty much on my own, just sort of keeping an eye on things. At any given time I had twenty to thirty columns in my TweetDeck with different keyword searches trying to track anything that mentioned journalists or press suppression. But, before long, a lot of the reporting around this came together around a tag that we created called #journarrest and that tag allowed people to report anything they were seeing and I could follow up on it.

I worked really hard to get two or three independent sources of verification to put on my tracking. Part of that was I wanted to get the full picture but then part of that was, given social media, you have to be increasingly careful about taking tips off social media and how you work to verify those. That was a really important part of my process and I did it by essentially using boots on the ground. Over time I became really good friends with journalists who were there on the ground in Oakland, New York, Chicago and Florida covering these events and they were able to help me confirm them. It got to the point where I was getting tips by email before I was even seeing them on social media. That network effect was a really powerful part about how I have been able to track this for the past year and many of those journalists—many of them independent and freelancers—who are out there on the frontlines pretty much on their own connecting with each other and supporting each other to help each other protect the First Amendment in these situations throughout the US.

GOSZTOLA: What are your thoughts on the pushback that came in the first months of the Occupy movement where you had civil society and media organizations getting involved in letting the New York Police Department know they were not going to tolerate this conduct by law enforcement?

STEARNS: I was really heartened by the response especially after a year ago today when twelve journalists were arrested during the raid on Zuccotti Park. Lots of nonprofit groups and press freedom groups came together to say that they were outraged by the way that the NYPD was treating journalists. But, we’ve seen a couple sign-on letters now and we’ve seen a couple closed-door meetings and the NYPD is still arresting journalists. So, one of the things that I think I realized over the past year is that the tactics that we’ve used for a long time to protect press freedom are still important and vitally important but they’re not enough. A lot of this defense of First Amendment rights happens behind closed-doors in court rooms, in meetings with chief of police, etc, and we need to make this a public issue. Increasingly, the public is standing side by side with journalists as media makers, covering these events. Everybody has a stake in the First Amendment.

So, one of the reasons that I think my documentation of these arrests was so important was because it was a public act. It was a place anybody could go to double-check my work. They could contribute to my work. They could bear witness. But also they could they could see the stories firsthand of journalists being arrested and how it affected them and their reporting. And I think we need to have that public conversation to really make clear the new threats to the First Amendment in the digital age.

GOSZTOLA: This gained international attention from groups that track press freedom in all countries of the world. What was your reaction when this developed into something that was more than just a local or national issue?

STEARNS: For me, it was easy to get lost by focusing so deeply on what was happening right in front of us in the Occupy movement and the press suppression of journalists there that I actually think I lost the larger context of what was happening at times. So, when the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) started the weighing in, when the Committee for Protecting Journalists (CPJ) and especially when Reporters Without Borders (RWB) dropped the US twenty-seven to make us forty-seventh in the world for press freedom largely due to these arrests, it was a huge signal to me and many in the journalist community that this is not just a set of isolated incidents. This is a real fundamental challenge that we need to address as a nation. And it really fits into a lot of larger trends we’re seeing with the rise of surveillance, with increasingly governments at all levels clamping down on information and punishing whistleblowers. And I think that seeing that international pressure and international comparisons come to bear made clear what an enormous challenge this is for America as one of our core beliefs.

GOSZTOLA: It seems like there are two key issues that need to be addressed. One, there are members of law enforcement, who just don’t want people present. Two, there is an escalating amount of incidents where people are having their right to record violated. So, how do you see these trends feeding into the number of arrests?

STEARNS: If you look at the broad scope of challenges to the First Amendment that we’ve seen over the past year, journalists are one piece of that. I think the increasing arrests and harassment of citizens that are using their smart phones and other cameras to record police actions in public places is another and we’re seeing court cases come up around the US from Illinois to Baltimore to Boston where average Joe people who pull out there cameraphone to captuere something that happen are being swept up and arrested, sometimes having their footage deleted and more. This obviously raises both First and Fourth Amendment concerns.

I think the linkage between that and what’s happening with journalists on the ground at protests is that we’re in a situation where increasingly police in public places and authorities of all kinds are under much more scrutiny. Smart phones at every corner and people tweeting about everything that’s happening. And, that level transparency, that level of accountability and that level of bearing witness can be really intimidating for someone in a heated situation. So, I think there may be and probably be police that are really hostile to that, to being tracked and chronicled, even as police departments use that same technology to record protesters. But, even police officers do not understand that this kind of recording and the new digital tools empowering people to become media makers are protected under the First Amendment and that’s why I was so thrilled this year when the Department of Justice weighed in on the question of right to record and sent a message to police departments around the country that people do have a right to record in public places and it really is truly a First Amendment issue.

GOSZTOLA: What do you say about the fact that these journalists getting arrested are some of the only people that cover protests, especially unsanctioned demonstrations, in the country?

One of the things we’ve seen if you look at protest coverage over the past ten years is that the people who tend to be on the frontlines writing that first draft of history as it’s happening tend to be these independent journalists. Whether they’re independent or freelancers working for a wide variety of publications or bloggers or citizen journalists, whatever that looks like we are seeing people who are unaffiliated with major institutions or affiliated with small news organizations on the frontlines putting themselves in harm’s way. I think that’s only going to increase as we see more layoffs at commercial media outlets and we see the rise of nonprofit non-commercial media, more and more of these people who really don’t have the legal backing or traditional protection that many journalists at mainstream institutions enjoy.

Putting themselves out there and being punished for it in many ways. We’re seeing these arrests impact their lives, their stress levels and their finances as they pay for legal frees. It’s a really problematic and troubling moment where I think it threatens some of the most independent journalism we’re seeing. In that regard, I stand up for all people’s freedom of the press, whether they’re working for the New York Times or they’re on their own, but I am deeply concerned with the impact it has on independent journalists and small news organizations that don’t have those protections.

So, my tracking is at once both an effort to bear witness and also a call to action for nonprofits to step up and protect new forms of journalism and for all of us in our communities to understand that these rights journalists have are our rights as people, as Americans and it is all of our responsibilities to be stepping up to defend them.

*For more, here’s Stearns’ exceptional and award-winning Storify tracking journalist arrests: “Tracking Journalist Arrests at Occupy Protests Around the Country

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."