An audience member protests the news media during a President Donald Trump campaign rally in Washington Township, Michigan, on April 28, 2018. (AP/Paul Sancya)
An audience member protests the news media during a President Donald Trump campaign rally in Washington Township, Michigan, on April 28, 2018. (AP/Paul Sancya)

CPJ’s backgrounder on US press freedom

In recent weeks CPJ has noticed an uptick in interest from editorial boards of U.S. publications on issues related to press freedom in the United States. In light of this, the following data and reporting may be helpful.

CPJ systematically tracks the killing and imprisonment of journalists around the world, and reports on threats and attacks against them. We are also one of the managing partners of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a joint initiative of 30 organizations dedicated to defending press freedom.

According to CPJ research, in 2018:

  • Four journalists and one media worker have been murdered (at the Capital Gazette)
  • Another journalist, Zack Stoner, was killed in Chicago, but CPJ is still investigating whether the motive is related to his journalism.
  • This is the deadliest year for journalists in the United States since CPJ began keeping records in 1992. At this point in 2018, the United States is the third deadliest country globally after Afghanistan and Syria.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:

  • In 2018, at least 24 journalists were physically attacked (ranging from being shoved or having equipment damaged, to more serious physical assaults). In 2017, at least 45 journalists were physically attacked.
  • In 2018, at least three journalists have been arrested in the U.S. in the course of their work. In 2017, at least 34 journalists were arrested.
  • Since the beginning of 2017, the Department of Justice has issued indictments in at least four leak prosecutions. In at least one case, a journalist’s records were subpoenaed.

An international delegation of global press freedom groups led by CPJ in January found that journalists face a range of threats including physical and verbal harassment, and that press freedom in Missouri and surrounding states has worsened in recent years.

Covering white nationalism and the far right is a dangerous beat in the United States. CPJ has documented threats, both online and off, to reporters who cover these movements.

Protests are among the most dangerous assignments for journalists:

  • CPJ research shows that journalists of color face a unique set of threats when covering protests.
  • Since the beginning of 2017, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented at least 31 journalists arrested at protests, while 36 have faced some form of physical attack or interference at protests.
  • CPJ has also documented how the police crowd-control tactic known as “kettling” can sweep up journalists and result in their arrest.

The White House’s charged rhetoric on “fake news” not only undermines the work of the media in the U.S., it emboldens autocratic leaders around the world. Authorities in countries including China, Cambodia, Egypt, Philippines, Syria, and Poland have adopted President Trump’s “fake news” epithet to justify censorship.

  • According to CPJ’s most recent annual prison census, the number of journalists imprisoned on false news charges more than doubled, from 9 cases (in 2 countries) in 2016 to 21 cases (in 6 countries) in 2017
  • Of the 21 cases, Turkey and Egypt have the highest numbers of journalists on false news charges
  • China, Egypt, and Turkey were responsible for more than half of jailed journalists around the world in 2017, continuing a trend from the previous year.
  • Cairo’s national security prosecutor charged at least eight journalists on July 4 with spreading false news, adding them to a larger case of individuals facing the same accusation, including other journalists, academics, and politicians.