U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal is among a group of lawmakers looking to make it a federal crime to intentionally cause bodily injury to a journalist during the course of newsgathering, publishing and broadcasting.
Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, are pushing the Journalist Protection Act. The bill was introduced in May, a month before last week’s shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland that killed five journalists, but Blumenthal said Monday the recent incident demonstrates the need for the bill.
“The horrific tragedy in Annapolis costing five precious lives simply reinforces our argument that the press may be targets for violence and threats that interfere with their invaluable work for our democracy, “ Blumenthal said. “The quest for our democracy is more critical than before and more threatened than ever even before this terrible massacre.”
Making it a federal law helps give the states equal access to the FBI’s forensic tools and other resources that can improve the chances of a successful prosecution, Blumenthal said.The bill mirrors legislation that U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, introduced in February.
The hostile behaviors could include pushing, shoving, stealing or destroying media equipment, in addition to causing bodily injury or death.
The bill is supported by the Communications Workers of America and by News Media for Open Government, a broad coalition of news media and journalism organizations working to ensure that laws, policies and practices preserve and protect freedom of the press, open government and the free flow of information.
They note last week’s shooting wasn’t the first time reporters have faced violence while working in the U.S.
“This is a dangerous time to be a journalist,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of the NewsGuild, a division of the CWA. “At least 44 reporters were physically attacked in the U.S. last year and angry rhetoric that demonizes reporters persists. The threatening atmosphere is palpable.”
In Feburary, WPIX reporter Howard Thompson and photographer John Frasse were attacked by a bat-wielding man while working on a story in Bronx, N.Y. Earlier this year, OC Weekly journalists reported being assaulted by demonstrators at a Make America Great Again rally in Huntington Beach, California. Other recent incidents include U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, who won a May 2017 special election despite body slamming a reporter the day before the vote.
At the end of April, the watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders dropped the U.S. by two places in its annual World Press Freedom Index. Four days later President Donald Trump, whose rhetoric critics say has helped fuel hostility toward the media, called the White House press corps “a bunch of fake news liberals who hate me.”
“A free unfettered press has always been a hallmark of our democracy,” Blumenthal wrote. “Reporters face a near-daily barrage of verbal attacks from this administration, which has the very real consequences of casting the media as enemies of the American people and possible targets of violence.”
Charlie Braico, president of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, said the act will permit the authorities to properly punish people who attempt to interfere with its members as they work in dynamic and challenging situations.
“Broadcast employees assigned to newsgathering in the field often work alone, or in two-person crews,” Braico stated in a press statement. “With their expensive and cumbersome equipment, they are easy and tempting prey for anti-media extremists and thieves.”
Blumenthal and Menendez say they’ll recruit supporters for the act within the next few weeks.