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Given the Alarming Number of Assaults on Journalists Covering Political Events and Protests, How Might Legal Protection for Documentary Filmmakers be Strengthened?

11:27 pm | Documentary Toolkit
This Q&A was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Documentary magazine, a publication of the International Documentary Association, a nonprofit media arts organization based in Los Angeles.

In these politically divisive times, the pursuit of facts through newsgathering, including investigative documentary journalism, has never been more critical. Regrettably, the health and safety of filmmakers and other journalists pursuing politically sensitive projects has rarely been so hazardous.

Increasingly over the past few years, politicians and agenda-driven media networks have instigated hostility against the free press by labeling independent and mainstream media the “enemy of the people” and a “stain on America” for their purported dissemination of “fake news.” Journalists covering political rallies have been demonized, threatened and assaulted. Since May 26, when protestors first reacted to the death of George Floyd, many journalists have been injured without provocation by police officers and political extremists. Of great concern is that these assaults and threats will have a chilling effect on newsgathering. And when the health and safety of documentary filmmakers and other journalists come under attack, the role of the free press—a cornerstone of American democracy—is at risk.

While many states have laws protecting journalists, offenders are not always prosecuted—sometimes due to political considerations. One remedy receiving attention is federal legislation. The Journalist Protection Act (H.R. 1684), sponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Bob Menendez and Congressman Eric Swalwell, would make it a federal crime to intentionally commit, or attempt to commit, an act that causes bodily injury to a journalist if done with the intention of intimidating or impeding newsgathering or while the journalist is taking part in newsgathering.

The JPA defines “journalist” broadly and includes documentary filmmakers. The legislation specifically protects individuals disseminating news or information of public interest through a television broadcast, video distribution, or motion picture for public showing.

Introduced into the House of Representatives last year, the bill as of this writing is before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. If the law is enacted, a convicted offender would be subject to substantial fines and sentenced to three to six years in prison.

The recent and alarming spike of assaults on journalists threatens the values enshrined in the First Amendment. With the purpose of preserving this critical privilege and the safety of our journalists including documentary filmmakers, the JPA stands to receive greater focus in the final months of the 116th Congress.

© 2021 Steven Beer