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Robert Dardenne

Reporters' arrest hurts democracy

The arrests of four journalists at the Republican National Convention on Monday highlight issues vital to the future of both the press and democratic government. They also signal to us, as citizens, that we should try harder to appreciate journalism for its role in helping to maintain our freedoms rather than condemn it because it doesn't always tell us what we want to hear.

Reports indicate that police arrested Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke as he photographed small groups of antiwar protesters while they slashed tires and broke windows. Internet video clips show Democracy Now! television and radio host Amy Goodman being arrested as she asked police about injuries to two members of her staff who had been arrested earlier as they watched police converge on protesters.

All four wore prominent press credentials. Rourke and Goodman were placed in custody, brought to holding areas, processed and released. The Associated Press reported that police likely wouldn't charge Rourke; however, they charged Goodman with a misdemeanor obstruction of a legal process and interference with a peace officer. Police arrested the two producers, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar, on a felony riot charge.

Arresting journalists under these circumstances signals a dangerous unhealthiness at the core of any democracy. While I can't say for sure, video and other reports make it seem highly unlikely that these journalists were participating in riots. The AP said Rourke was "swept up" in the arrests of demonstrators as he took photographs. Various accounts say Kouddous and Salazar went to an area in which they heard a disturbance, were told to leave, and after they asked how they could get out, were arrested, carried off and jailed.

This isn't a partisan issue. It doesn't matter where the journalists work. Despite an environment that often reduces journalists to nothing more than mouthpieces for conservatives or liberals, journalism's fundamental importance to our democracy is to report what happens — to be where we, the public, often aren't. The function of the police is to maintain and restore order. The two functions sometimes clash, as they did in Vietnam and civil rights demonstrations decades ago. But these clashes should not be resolved by the press staying away from the fray. That would allow police to operate virtually in secrecy, a circumstance present in and demanded by dictatorships. The clash of functions can be resolved only by government accepting that democracy in large part depends on working journalists, who not only have a right to report what happens on public streets, but also an obligation to do so.

That the Associated Press photographer is likely not to be charged and the three members of the independent press are may be a consequence of their actions or arrests, but also might show the vulnerability of journalists not backed by organizations large and powerful enough to stand up to government. The advantages of an alternative and independent news media are that they are small, mobile, passionate and willing be in the streets; they can be fearless; they will get to things the larger, more corporate press may not. The independent and alternative press, including citizen journalists, complements the corporate press. This is good for citizens and good for democracy. But the independents and alternatives don't have the organizational protections of the traditional press, and some of them don't have the legitimacy. This makes them prey to police and government officials who don't like what they do, and this is an issue for all of us.

U.S. journalism is in transition. Technological, political, economic and cultural changes now create great upheavals and uncertainty in how news is created (and by whom), produced and disseminated. However, no matter where we stand politically and no matter how we come to define journalists and journalism, we should never be uncertain about journalists' freedom to report, and we cannot condone arrests of journalists doing what we as citizens need and require them to do.

Robert Dardenne is an associate professor at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Reporters' arrest hurts democracy 09/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 9:13am]
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