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Aug. 9 – Society of Professional Journalists joins 20 press freedom orgs in establishing U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Coastal Empire News Staff Report


August 9, 2017 – The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), with chapters in all 50 states in the U.S. including the Georgia Pro Chapter, has joined more than 20 press freedom organizations this week to announce the launch of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a new website dedicated to documenting press freedom abuses across the United States.

The site will serve as a repository for data at a time when journalists in the U.S. are facing hostility, legal charges, assault, and other forms of harassment, according to the SPJ.

Freedom of the Press Foundation joined more than 20 press freedom organizations announcing the launch today of the U.S.Press Freedom Tracker, a new website dedicated to documenting press freedom abuses across the United States.

Led by Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the site will serve as a central repository for data.

In recent months, journalists have been charged with crimes while covering protests in Washington D.C. and North Dakota; stopped at the border and subjected to searches of their electronic devices; and physically assaulted, in one case by a congressional candidate.

Last year, in North Georgia, publisher Mark Thomason of The Fannin Focus was arrested by a local judge for a sentence he wrote in making an open records request which the judge found objectionable.  His legal problems caused him to cease publishing.

Data collected on the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker shows that 19 journalists have been arrested in the course of their work in 2017 and that at least 10 reporters are currently facing charges.

In 2017, at least four journalists have been stopped at the border and 11 have faced physical attacks, according to the tracker. “These numbers may increase as we receive new information,” according to the FPF.

“The United States has some of the strongest legal protections for press freedom in the world and a robust and varied media landscape, but this cannot be taken for granted. Open hostility, threats of leak prosecutions, and arrests have created a precarious situation for journalists,” said Alex Ellerbeck, senior research associate for the U.S. at the Committee to Protect Journalists and chair of the steering committee for the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. “A full and honest accounting of challenges to press freedom in this country is sorely needed.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker collects data based on news reports and tips submitted by journalists, professional organizations, and press freedom organizations. The coalition behind the tracker will use the research in letters, legal briefs, and advocacy campaigns.

The website is

“With the Trump administration ramping up its war on journalism, this initiative could not come at a more important time,” said Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “We hope it will be vital to highlighting the threats to press freedom in the U.S. and the important work journalists do to hold the government accountable.”

Freedom of the Press Foundation is leading the day-to-day operations of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, with its senior reporter, Peter Sterne, serving as the managing editor. The Committee to Protect Journalists is providing the initial funding and chairing the steering committee. Along with Freedom of the Press Foundation, the steering committee also includes representatives from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Knight Institute at Columbia University, Reporters Without Borders, and Index on Censorship. Please find a full list of partners on the website.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation provided assistance to now former publisher Mark Thomason.

Thomason had filed what was termed a “simple request for the court reporter’s transcripts and audio recordings of a bond revocation hearing,” according to a report by Julius Suber, reporting for the SPJ’s Georgia Pro Chapter.  “Thomason was born and raised in the region he covered, to include Fannin, Gilbert and Pickens counties, but his investigative reporting style particularly annoyed the superior court judge for the area and her allies, who convinced the prosecutor to jail Thomason and his attorney on felony charges that stemmed from an open-records request.” 

He was jailed, and then moved by the Sheriff to a jail in another county, making it harder for legal counsel to find him and get him released. 

“That orchestrated snafu, that bombshell would be heard by journalists and first amendment advocates across Georgia and across the nation.  A call to arms was almost immediate once the story broke in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC),” wrote Suber.

Professor Carolyn Carlson at Kennesaw State Univ. read the story, and alerted the leadership of the National Freedom of Information Committee, National Freedom of Information Coalitions, and SPJ Georgia Board of Directors, and communicated with the SPJ Legal Defense Fund Committee. “It’s worthy to note that all of the feedback Carlson received agreed with her assessment was “this is crazy,” wrote Suber, and got involved in his defense.

All charges were dropped against Mark Thomason and his Attorney Russell, eventually.  

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