OPC Forum: Who Is a Journalist?

Like the Arab Spring uprisings and the ongoing repression of free speech in China, the current Occupy Wall Street protests again raise the issue: Who should be recognized as a journalist? OPC members: log in and tell us your views on this issue, which expands along with all the new means of communication.

Several reporters and photographers have been roughed up and arrested while trying to cover the OWS demonstrations. Many Internet bloggers and posters for social networks have been prevented from acting as journalists on the ground that they lack a New York Police Department press card.

The police have said it was “inadvertent” that cameraman Roy Isen of a Fox TV crew was pepper-sprayed in the eyes, while his partner, reporter Dick Brennan, was punched in the stomach with a police baton. They had their press cards. But Kristen Gwynne of the AlterNet webmagazine and freelancer Natasha Lennard, who contributes to a New York Times blog, both were among the 700 people arrested on the OWS march across the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1, and were held for five hours, according to Reporters Without Borders. A week earlier, RWB said, John Farley, a journalist with MetroFocus magazine, was held for eight hours. None of these three had the NYPD credentials.

The OPC’s Freedom of the Press Committee has always supported Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says unequivocally that “Everyone has the right…to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Taken literally, this means that anyone qualifies as a journalist. RWB, without going that far, says the police have no right to their own definition.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, on the other hand, says it has no rigid definition of journalists and applies a common-sense, case-by-case approach. “We try to be as inclusive as possible,” says executive director Joel Simon, “particularly in repressive countries where the mainstream media is closed to critical views.” CPJ has defended numerous bloggers with dissenting political views.

Among the questions that the Freedom of the Press Committee sees as important:

  • Is a person without any affiliation with a recognized journalistic organization a journalist? Does this apply to people with periodic blogs, those with Facebook followers, and Twitter posters?
  • Should journalists have any privileges not granted to ordinary citizens? What do these rights include?
  • Does any organization (for instance, the NYPD, a political campaign, the White House) have the right to issue credentials to journalists and exclude from events people without those cards?
  • Does journalistic status imply any obligation to fairness or objectivity? Does a journalist forfeit this status by taking sides or joining a demonstration s/he is covering?
  • Are there other questions that bear on this issue?

    Log in and join the discussion.