Arresting American Journalists May Not Be as Rare as It Once Was

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Arresting American Journalists May Not Be as Rare as It Once Was

When it comes to the United States Constitution, there are some amendments that are more well-known than others. For example, we all know the First Amendment protects our freedom to say just about whatever we want on the internet, while people like to shout loudly about the Second. However, not everyone realizes that the First Amendment protects a variety of different forms of free speech for us, like the freedom to exercise religion, peacefully assemble, petition the government, and yes, freedom of the press.

While journalists are expected to adhere to a set of ethical standards and may find themselves wrapped up civil cases—defamation or libel—when those standards aren’t upheld, this amendment is meant to allow members of the press to seek stories under legal circumstances and report them accurately, free of repercussions from the government. This is true even if the government doesn’t approve of the story being told. American journalists have been arrested around the world—some with good reason and others not so much. Though, up until recent years, it was fairly unheard of for American reporters to be arrested on U.S. soil. If it was heard of, it wasn’t publicized nearly as widely as it is now. Here are some recent foreign examples, and how they compare to the rising number inside America’s borders.

North Korea

One of the most infamous stories of American journalists being held overseas happened in March 2009 when Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested for illegally crossing the China/North Korea border. At the time Lee and Ling were correspondents for Current TV, and were legally in China before entering North Korea and being caught by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army. However, there was controversy regarding whether or not Lee and Ling actually crossed into North Korean territory, or if North Korean guards unlawfully pursued them while they filmed a documentary about defectors on China’s side of the Tumen River.

Though the reporters were sentenced to 12 years hard labor—consisting of torture at a labor camp—they luckily never made it past interrogation and imprisonment. Former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang and got the reporters pardoned after serving 140 days in prison.


In February 2016, four journalists entered Bahrain under the guise of tourists. One of these reporters was award-winner Anna Therese Day, whose work has been published in the New York Times, CNN and Al Jazeera America. The others weren’t publicly identified. It also isn’t known whether these reporters were covering a story for a specific publication. Since Bahraini officials weren’t aware that they were reporters, they didn’t obtain the necessary permits needed to lawfully partake in any type of journalistic activities. These reporters and camera crew were attending a demonstration in Sitra, marking the five-year anniversary of a Shia uprising in the Gulf kingdom, when things quickly got out of hand and riots ensued.

Originally arrested for illegal assembly and intent to commit a crime, things got more complicated when it turned out that they were members of the American press. The country’s Minister of Interior issued a statement accusing them of “entering the country under the false pretense of tourism and failing to register with the proper authorities.” They were released after two days in prison.


In August 2014, protests in Ferguson, Missouri broke out in response to the shooting of Michael Brown. The African-American man’s death by a white cop sparked outrage in the community, especially as the protests escalated and police officers started getting hostile. These protests came in waves—with a second in November when a grand jury failed to indict the policeman who had killed Brown, Officer Darren Wilson. A third wave marked the anniversary of the shooting. During the first protests, 155 people were arrested, mostly for “refusal to disperse,” according to The Washington Post. From August through December 2014, the Freedom of the Press Foundation found that 24 journalists had been arrested.

As the first wave of protests turned to riots, police officers began tear gassing crowds and shooting people with rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse everyone and make arrests. Though many of these reporters had press credentials on them, they were unlawfully arrested and many wound up suing the city of St. Louis for false arrest once charges were dropped.

Standing Rock

The ongoing protests at the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota have had their fair share of arrests, from members of the Standing Rock Sioux and tribal allies to celebrities like Shailene Woodley and journalists alike. Though the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, the police force has been spraying people with tear gas, pepper spray, and fire hoses in freezing weather since spring 2016. At least seven journalists have been arrested as of late November, according to the Bismarck Tribune.

Reporters have been arrested on a variety of charges from “conspiring to set fire to roadblocks and vehicles” to “trespassing” to “engaging in riots.” Many reporters have had their cameras and other equipment confiscated by police. Reporters claim that they’re at Standing Rock to report the story, not engage, yet not every reporter’s charges have been dropped.

Washington D.C.

The weeks between the election and Inauguration Day were tense in America, especially as now-President Donald Trump rolled out his cabinet picks. Though protests broke out immediately after the election, none were as large as the one that took place in Washington D.C. the day that Trump was inaugurated. As emotions ran high, what began as a peaceful protest ultimately culminated into a riot—complete with a limousine set ablaze and a brick thrown through a Starbucks window—with 230 people detained by Washington D.C. police, according to The New York Times.


Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty

Among those arrested, journalists Evan Engel, Alexander Rubinstein, Jack Keller, Matthew Hopard, Shay Horse, and Aaron Cantu were hit with felony rioting charges. Though the charges for most of the reporters have been dropped, The Guardian stated that photojournalist Horse and freelancer Cantu are left only hoping that theirs will be as well.

What sets the foreign arrests of American reporters apart from the ones on U.S. soil is the fact that laws were broken—whether the people in question were reporters or not. You can’t enter a country under false pretenses, and you certainly can’t enter North Korea under any pretenses. It’s understandable that these reporters would try to toe the line in another country, due to the fact that they come from a place where freedom of the press is a given.

However, there isn’t any apparent reasoning behind the recent surge of journalist arrests across the nation. Journalists are taught to be where the story is, as it’s happening. When protests are engulfing a city, that’s the right place to be. Without sounding like a conspiracy nut, are these empty threats? Or a sign of what’s to come?