U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

The eyes of Texas (have been moved up a floor)

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Published On
January 31, 2023
A snapshot of press freedom violations documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker so far this year.

A snapshot of press freedom violations documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker so far this year.

Friends of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:

Welcome back to your monthly newsletter around press freedom violations in the United States. Find archived editions here, and get this newsletter direct in your inbox by signing up here.

Eyes on Texas

As the new year began, we were watching two things: the popcorn emoji-worthy C-SPAN camerawork in the battle for the U.S. House speakership, and the state of Texas.

Just days before the 2023 legislative session was about to get underway, Texas statehouse reporters learned that access to the Senate floor would continue to be off limits to the media. Reporters had been moved to the third floor of the Senate gallery in 2021 under pandemic protocols; Senators occupy the second.

Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association executive vice president, told the Tracker that many legislative procedures were changed during the height of COVID restrictions, but most of those have been dissolved since.

“Unfortunately, this rule was left in place,” Baggett said. “The result: reporters are still restricted to the Senate gallery, which is a floor above the senators themselves. That works to the detriment of timely and mutually beneficial conversations between senators and reporters.”

The Lone Star State joins Iowa, Kansas and Utah senates — all also Republican controlled — that enacted similar policies or practices last year limiting reporter access.

Kirby Lee—USA TODAY Sports/FILE

The Texas state capitol building in downtown Austin. Fun fact: Austin is also my hometown.

— Kirby Lee—USA TODAY Sports/FILE

On Jan. 9, a judge in Waco, Texas, issued a sweeping gag order that restricted media coverage ahead of a murder case retrial. The order prohibited the press from reporting on basic facts about the case, including any pretrial rulings. Two days later the judge vacated, or removed, his order after attorneys for local broadcaster KWTX successfully argued that it amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint.

Awaiting justice in North Carolina

For two reporters in Asheville, North Carolina, a long-awaited hearing date following their 2021 arrests was once again delayed this month.

Asheville Blade journalists Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were documenting on Christmas Night in 2021 as local police swept a homeless encampment. Both were arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespassing. They spent the day in the courthouse for their bench trial on Jan. 25, only to have it continued until mid-April.

Freedom of the Press Foundation, together with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Committee to Protect Journalists, has filed a petition for the body camera footage of the journalists’ arrests. North Carolina is one of the only states that does not consider body camera footage a public record.

Awaiting justice in Nevada

On Jan. 25, the Tracker team was also closely following a hearing in a Nevada district court. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, which suffered the loss of its investigative reporter Jeff German last September in a shocking murder, was petitioning the court to sanction local police for their handling of the reporter’s seized devices. Despite comments to the contrary, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers had searched German’s cellphone when they took it from his home. The judge declined to sanction the department and also declined the outlet’s request to appoint a “special master” to review the data on the seized devices.

Freedom of the Press Foundation Advocacy Director Seth Stern wrote how that ruling misses what reporter’s privilege is fundamentally about: “The primary purpose is to empower sources to communicate with journalists without fear that the government or the public will learn who they are or what they said in court proceedings” Stern wrote.

2022 roundups

I’d be remiss to not highlight the work Tracker reporters do to pull together high-level end-of-year overviews of database categories.

Senior Reporter Stephanie Sugars wrote how the 15 journalists arrested or detained in 2022 is far fewer than the number arrested in 2021 — and far, far fewer than in 2020 — due in large part to fewer national protests.

“Yet every arrest of a journalist has consequences for the free press,” Sugars wrote. “While detained, journalists lose their ability to freely cover the story; criminal charges mean journalists face the threat of fines, prison time — or both.”

At least 19 journalists in the Tracker database — including Asheville Blade reporters Bliss and Coit — still face charges for arrests dating back to 2017.

Maranie Staab

Photographer Emily Molli documents a 2020 Portland protest where her camera was later damaged by a chemical irritant.

— Maranie Staab

With more than 200 reports of damaged equipment recorded in the Tracker database (eight in 2022) the vast majority — 73% — occurred while journalists covered protests across the nation. Tracker Reporter Kio Herrera talked to independent journalists to understand the true cost when a camera or other work equipment is damaged in the course of reporting.

Independent photojournalist Emily Molli told Herrera that, even if the damage isn’t permanent, having to stop work for the day has a financial impact. “And then having to replace equipment once it's broken has a really bad financial impact,” Molli said.

I helped. So did you.

You may remember as we headed into December fundraising — the most important time of year for a nonprofit — I promised to personally match the first $100 donated toward the Tracker. I’m proud to say someone took me up on that offer, and a many someones helped Freedom of the Press Foundation reach its $100k matching goal. Our programs, this newsletter, all rely on donations, and a new year is a great time to donate to support the Tracker.