February 12, 2018

US - #WeeklyAddress: February 5 - 11: Recent attacks on journalists encourage new bill in US House of Representatives

Below are the most notable incidents regarding threats to press freedom in the US during the week of February 5-11:

Reporter and cameraman attacked with baseball bat while on assignment

Jose Lebron-Pimentel, a 36-year-old mechanic, attacked PIX11’s “Help Me Howard” reporter Howard Thompson and his cameraman, John Frasse, in Belmont, New York on February 6. While conducting a news interview, Lebron-Pimentel hit both Thompson and Frasse with a baseball bat outside of his car dealership. Lebron-Pimentel was arrested and charged with assault and is currently being held on $5,000 bail. "Help Me Howard" segments usually feature Thompson confronting landlords, business owners and others in order to shed light on local corruption involving New York residents. According to the police report, Thompson and Frasse weren’t severely injured.

California congressman proposes Journalist Protection Act

Eric Swalwell, Democratic Representative for California's 15th Congressional District, proposed a bill in the US House of Representatives on February 5. The bill, called the Journalist Protection Act, would make it a federal crime to harm a journalist in the field with the intent of preventing their work. Swalwell claimed that the recent threats against CNN show how necessary the legislation is: “President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere. It’s not just about labelling reports of his constant falsehoods as #FakeNews – it’s his casting of media personalities and outlets as anti-American targets, and encouraging people to engage in violence.” Swalwell explicitly referred to President Trump’s July 2 tweet, which included a video of the president body-slamming and punching a person whose face was covered with the CNN logo, as “childish.” CNN received multiple death threats from a Michigan man, Brandon Griesemer, via phone call; Griesemer told the news outlet, “Fake news. I’m going to gun you all down.” In an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, Swalwell mentioned Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index and how the United States’ ranking fell to 43rd out of 180 countries between 2016 and 2017, mostly due to multiple press freedom violations that took place during the presidential election. “This is cause for concern, as the United States must not emulate nations in which violence against journalists is more common,” Swalwell said.

Vice President tweets ‘#FAKENEWS’ after Olympian skater refuses to meet with him

Vice President Mike Pence responded to a February 7 report from USA TODAY Sports by calling it #FakeNews on Twitter. The article reported that Pence requested a meeting with openly gay Olympian skater Adam Rippon because he was concerned about backlash for his stance against LGBT rights.

Rippon tweeted why he didn’t want to meet with Pence: “I personally have nothing to say to Mike Pence. Given the chance to talk after the Olympics, I would want to bring with me people whose lives have been hurt by legislation he has championed.” In contrast with the President, Pence does not have a long history of using the term “fake news.” However, he recently used the phrase when reports surfaced that he was running for the 2020 presidential election. Pence is one of the original co-founders of the Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of the Press that strives to create a forum to condemn media censorship and the persecution of journalists. He was also a co-sponsor of the Free Flow of Information Act that aimed to help protect journalists’ sources in federal courts, but which has never been passed into law.

President Trump tweets why he thinks people don’t believe in the media

On February 11, Trump took to Twitter yet again to slam “fake news” for reporting on “negative” stories. It is unclear why Trump went after the media in this tweet; however, it appeared on twitter after allegations surfaced against White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter last week. The White House is facing major backlash for how it handled the allegations; Chief of staff John Kelly reportedly knew for months that Porter did not obtain full security clearance for his position. In times of media scrutiny, Trump has repeatedly blamed the press via Twitter, even going as far as calling for a journalist's firing.

The United States ranks 43rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index after falling 2 places in the last year.

For the latest updates, follow RSF on twitter @RSF_en.