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Media Organizations Band Together to Track Press Freedom Violations in U.S.

Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte, center, pleads guilty to assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs during his court hearing in Bozeman, Mont., on June 12, 2017. (Freddy Monares/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP)

Stressing that “constant vigilance and an honest accounting of the country’s track record on press freedom are essential,” a coalition of press freedom groups has launched a first-of-its-kind website to track problems faced by reporters on the job in the United States.

“The United States has some of the strongest legal protections for press freedom in the world and a robust and varied media landscape, but this cannot be taken for granted,” said Alex Ellerbeck, senior research associate for the U.S. at the Committee to Protect Journalists and chair of the steering committee for the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. “Open hostility, threats of leak prosecutions, and arrests have created a precarious situation for journalists. A full and honest accounting of challenges to press freedom in this country is sorely needed.”

Cases of concern cited by CPJ include journalists detained at the inauguration protest and Standing Rock pipeline demonstrations in North Dakota, Rep. Greg Gianforte body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on the campaign trail, and at least four journalists being stopped at the border with a demand from Customs and Border Protection that they search content on the reporters’ electronic devices.

Eleven journalists have been physically attacked in the United States this year. Nineteen journalists have been arrested in the course of their work in 2017; 10 are facing charges. A dozen reporters have had their equipment seized and searched.

In addition to CPJ, the steering committee of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker includes the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Index on Censorship.

Partners include the American Society of News Editors, Columbia Journalism Review, the Media Law Resource Center, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Press Club, the National Press Photographers Association, the Newseum, PEN America, Poynter, the Radio Television Digital News Association and Foundation, and the Society of Professional Journalists.

The tracker will compile data through tips from journalists and organizations as well as news reports.

“When journalists are obstructed, so is the public’s right to be informed and hold power to account. The United States has some of the strongest legal free speech protections in the world, and serves as a beacon for press freedom in a world where journalists are routinely censored, attacked, or imprisoned for their work,” says a statement on the tracker. “But the U.S. record is imperfect, and journalists and advocates must tirelessly defend the First Amendment in courts, in legislatures, and in the media.”

Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said that “with the Trump administration ramping up its war on journalism, this initiative could not come at a more important time.”

“We hope it will be vital to highlighting the threats to press freedom in the U.S. and the important work journalists do to hold the government accountable,” Timm said.