DHS has compiled intelligence reports on the work of two American journalists covering protests in Portland, Oregon, using a government system meant for information on terrorist suspects and other violent actors, not US citizens engaging in constitutionally protected activities. The department’s intelligence office shared three reports over the past week with federal law enforcement agencies, highlighting the work of New York Times reporter Mike Baker and Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of Lawfare blog. The intelligence reports summarized tweets written by Baker and Wittes and noted that they had published leaked, unclassified documents about DHS operations in Portland, where federal agents have been clashing with protesters in recent weeks. Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security, has since ordered the intelligence office to stop collecting information on journalists and ordered an investigation into the matter.
DHS also recently instructed its officers on how to arrest and tear gas journalists at protests without facing legal liability, according to a DHS memo leaked to The Nation of legal guidance on how to interpret a temporary restraining order issued against the agency last week. The restraining order, which was issued in response to a lawsuit alleging officers in Portland were attacking journalists, contained some exceptions. The DHS legal memo emphasized some of the exceptions to liability, such as an exemption for “incidental exposure” to crowd-control devices like tear gas.
"It is deeply concerning that a US government agency was collecting and disseminating intelligence on American journalists engaged in constitutionally-protected activities, and who had no connection to terrorists or other violent actors," said Daphne Pellegrino, Advocacy Manager for RSF USA. "How do such activities justify a threat to US national security? DHS has demonstrated through this practice, as well as its demonstrated interest in avoiding liability for subjecting journalists to arrest or tear gas, that it has no regard to the rights of journalists in the United States. RSF supports calls for a rapid investigation into the intelligence reporting and for the agency’s officers on the ground at protests to respect the role of journalists covering these events."
There have been more than 600 reported press freedom incidents, including arrests and physical attacks, since journalists began covering the racial justice protests that began throughout the United States on May 26, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. The majority of these attacks have been by law enforcement. Portland, with more than 100 episodes, is the US city with the most reported press freedom incidents.
The United States is ranked 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.