CPJ Insider: February 2022 edition

CPJ on press freedom in the US: Behind the scenes with Katherine Jacobsen

In January, CPJ published “‘Night and day’: The Biden administration and the press,” a special report written by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr.

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters on the one-year anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Ken Cedeno/Pool via Reuters)

The report, which featured interviews with media experts, journalists, and government leaders, found that while President Biden’s approach to U.S. media is in stark contrast to that of Donald Trump’s, press freedom advocates remain extremely concerned about several issues in the current administration.

In a special briefing we hosted on January 13, Downie spoke with CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney about his findings, in a discussion that was moderated by CPJ U.S. and Canada Program Coordinator Katherine Jacobsen. The first year of the Biden administration, Downie said, has included a complete reversal of the “pervasive and damaging hostility to the press” that was exhibited by the Trump administration. Still, several issues remain, including the president’s limited availability to journalists, the administration’s slow responses to requests for information, its planned extradition of Julian Assange, and its limited assistance to Afghan journalists.

Here, we spoke to Jacobsen, who since 2019 has monitored the media environment in the U.S.:

You have reported on press freedom in the U.S. during the Trump administration and now, during the Biden administration. What has been the major difference between the two?

On the federal level, the rhetoric has improved greatly, as [Downie’s] Biden report showed, which is a welcome relief for journalists and press freedom advocates alike. However, what we’re not seeing, and would like to see, is to have those words backed up by actions.

At the local level, we haven’t seen the kind of improvement that we would like. In 2020, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which CPJ helped co-found, documented unprecedented levels of detentions, arrests, and assaults on journalists. But those numbers haven’t since dropped back to the initial levels of 2017, when the Tracker first began recording cases. So while the situation at White House press briefings has improved, it doesn’t necessarily translate to safer reporting on the ground for journalists or more access for them.

The report also included some recommendations to the Biden administration. Tell me more about them.

We laid out several recommendations that we think the Biden administration can consider to improve on press freedom both domestically and globally. One of them is facilitating greater access to journalists.

One good thing that happened was that Biden recently gave another press conference, in which he took questions from reporters. That was significant, and we were heartened by that. But that needs to be followed by more regular press conferences, with greater access to Biden and other government officials, and timely responses to requests for information filed under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Tracker shows an unprecedented number of attacks on and arrests and detentions of journalists in the US. What do you think that means for the future of press freedom in the country?

The Tracker’s data highlights a concerning trend that unfortunately I don’t think we’re going to see much improvement on. It would require a lot of change at state and local levels. Essentially, despite the fact that Trump is out of office, the problems we documented during his administration remain. It’s easy to write off what happened in 2020 when the arrests and detentions of journalists spiked as being a product of the Trump administration, but what he did was play up the anti-media sentiment and light the fuse.

I’m going to continue the metaphor here. That fire is still going, and we need to find a way to extinguish it. But it’s hard to undo four-plus years of damage and the decades before of mistrust in the media. There’s also disinformation and news deserts, which means people have no access to information. All of these problems will take a long time to address and repair.

I’m hopeful that things will change, but I’m not as optimistic as I’d like to be.

Meet Jodie Ginsberg, CPJ’s new president

In mid-January, CPJ announced we had named our new president: press freedom advocate Jodie Ginsberg.

CPJ’s new president, Jodie Ginsberg, will join the organization in April. (Photo courtesy of Griffith University: Integrity 20)

Jodie, a dual South African and British citizen, began her journalism career at Reuters and worked in several countries, including Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Ireland. She later became the Reuters bureau chief for the UK and Ireland before moving into advocacy work. She was the CEO of Index on Censorship, a freedom of expression organization and a frequent partner of CPJ, and, most recently, the CEO of Internews Europe, an international media support nonprofit organization.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Jodie described how it is vital to both support journalists while also confronting the broader challenges to press freedom globally. “We want journalists to be safe in order that people have access to a free and independent press,” she said. “That means dealing with the systemic issues that threaten journalistic safety, not just working on individual cases.”

Jodie will work out of CPJ’s New York City headquarters starting in April. Stay tuned!


In a feature highlighting the protests in Kazakhstan, CPJ spoke to two journalists who described the difficulties they faced while reporting on the demonstrations. “Nothing like this ever happened here before,” one told CPJ.

Bangladeshi journalist Kanak Sarwar tells CPJ about the government’s efforts to silence his voice in exile—including by detaining his sister and her sons. “When you are the voice of the people, the voice of the voiceless, journalism will be an addiction, not a profession,” he said. “I will continue my journalism.”

In a Q&A with CPJ, Mexican journalist Marcela Turati describes how she learned that she had been under investigation—and surveilled—by Mexican federal authorities for years. “How can you do journalism without speaking with a source on the telephone,” she asked, “if you can’t be sure that they’re not spying on you?”

CPJ in the news

Jen Psaki says Biden answered more than 1,000 questions last year when grilled about press freedom report,” Mediaite

As Biden concludes first year in office, press freedom advocates share their priorities,” CNN

One year into the Biden administration, concerns about press access and transparency remain,” Foreign Press

President Biden’s first year with the press,” Columbia Journalism Review

In Peru, courts ‘used like whips’ to silence journalists,” The New York Times

Kazakh president says ‘gap between rich and poor’ sparked deadly protests,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty

Reporting on Kazakhstan’s chaos amid internet shutdowns and violence,” Open Democracy

Outcry as India shuts Kashmir Press Club,” The Daily Star