According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been nearly 500 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States on May 26. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. In addition, leadership changes at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees networks like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that provide credible, unbiased information to audiences around the world, have generated concern about the ability of the agency to carry out its mission and host international journalists.
On July 23, 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Human Rights at Home: Media, Politics, and the Safety of Journalists,” to assess the state of media freedom and the safety of journalists in the United States today. The online hearing was held in compliance with H.Res.965, which provides for official remote proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Witnesses included Christiane Amanpour, Chief International Anchor at CNN-PBS and UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety; David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression and Clinical Professor of Law at University of California, Irvine; and Dr. Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), who chaired the hearing, said in his opening statement, “Freedom of the press is not only enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but a founding commitment to the international organizations that the United States has led to shape like the OSCE and the United Nations. The Helsinki Commission is mandated to monitor compliance with human rights and democracy commitments across 57-nation region of the OSCE, including the United States itself. As a country and a Congress, we should hold the United States to the highest standard for compliance with international press freedom commitments.”
Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) joined the proceedings, along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), a member of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
Christiane Amanpour spoke from her personal experience as a journalist, saying, “I have seen the difference between truth and lies and what it means. It means the difference between democracy and dictatorship.”
Ms. Amanpour referenced arrests of journalists across the country during the protests, including the arrest of her CNN colleagues, Omar Jimenez and other crew members, in Minneapolis. Ms. Amanpour urged Helsinki Commissioners to “listen closely to civil society organizations that are monitoring and tracking violations in the United States and providing clear policy recommendations.”
David Kaye testified that from his assessment, “law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels have repeatedly interfered with the rights of the press.” He highlighted the obligation of police to avoid use of force, the responsibility of public officials to enforce protections of the press, the necessity of demilitarizing law enforcement.
On the subject of the recent dismissals by CEO Michael Pack at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Mr. Kaye said that it was difficult to see it as anything other than “an attempt to undermine the independence of these agencies and to bring them under political influence.”
Mr. Kaye also discussed the threats to media worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, including intimidation of and attacks on journalists, restrictions of space for reporting, lack of access for foreign reporters, and arbitrary detentions.
He concluded by recommending that the United States “return to the institutions of global human rights, such as the Human Rights Council, and as part of that reconsider its historic resistance to global monitoring of U.S. human rights behavior.”
In her testimony, Courtney Radsch emphasized the sheer scale of violence against journalists since the beginning of the nationwide protests, which she described as “unparalleled.”
Referring to a recent Committee to Protect Journalist’s report on the current Trump administration and press freedom, Dr. Radsch said that CPJ found that the administration has “regularly attacked the role of an independent press, stepped up prosecution of news sources, interfered in the business of media owners, and empowered foreign leaders to restrict their own media.”
Dr. Radsch also commented on recent reports that the U.S. Agency for Global Media may restrict visas for foreign journalists working for USAGM in the United States. She warned that “if they lose their visas, repatriated journalists could face retribution for their critical reporting.”
While commending the commission for holding a hearing on this subject, Dr. Radsch said that more needs to be done. CPJ’s recommendations include for officials at all levels of government to provide data about the recent incidents of anti-press violence, to investigate any reported attacks, and to hold perpetrators to account.
- Witness Biographies
- Hearing: Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership
- Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home
- OSCE Media Freedom Representative concerned about violence against journalists covering protests in USA, calls for protection of journalists
- Statement for the Record: Reporters without Borders