Christina Piaia, ProJourn Legal Manager, Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press | USA

Christina Piaia is the legal manager for the Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She oversees legal intakes for pro bono matters concerning prepublication review and access to public records and develops relationships with law firms and corporate partners to provide journalists with pro bono legal assistance. Prior to ProJourn, Ms. Piaia served as a trial attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and supervised the Gender-Based Harassment Unit at the NYC Commission on Human Rights, working extensively on gender discrimination claims with a focus on community outreach and education. Before the Commission, Christina Piaia spent three years as an international human rights attorney, working on the ground with local grassroots organizations. As a passionate public interest attorney, she serves as pro bono counsel for several nonprofits and on the board of the Chris Hondros Fund.


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Event Title: SDGs Conference 2023 Date: Sept 20, 2023


Upholding the rule of law for the protection of journalists: Increasing legal harassment towards media members

As a former journalist, now a lawyer, I have incredible respect for reporting the most pressing news. I think sometimes we see legal harassment that journalists are facing on a global scale as something that is an attack against the press. However, some of these attacks are not being housed in terms of press freedom but using different areas of law to target journalists and make it more difficult to do their work. 

At the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, we have a US Press Freedom Tracker that takes a look at what is happening here on the ground, for journalists both from illegal perspective as well as attacks, assaults, and imprisonment against journalists. Since 2017, in the US, there have been thousands of assaults, mostly at the hands of law enforcement, against journalists in the United States. 2020 and 2021, not surprisingly, were exceptionally bad. 630 journalists in 2020 were assaulted, 145 in 2021 and although the numbers are lower this year, we continue to remain troubled about the state of press freedom here in the US, which of course boasts to have the First Amendment and some incredible legal protections for press. However, as you can tell from those numbers, not by any means free from issues. 

At the top of my mind are the recent deaths of two journalists here in the US. Jeff Kerman, a veteran investigative reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was killed last September, allegedly by the subject of one of his investigations. A few months after that, Dylan Lyons, a reporter for Spectrum News in Florida was fatally shot while reporting on the scene. We know that journalists should not have to fear reporting information. They should not have to fear challenging public officials, who have been accused of misusing their office or betraying the public trust. It remains crucial to know that these journalists are out there covering these communities and how we have to make sure that communities are informed and that we hold those in power accountable for their actions. 

We have an inability to make sure that we are protecting journalists’ access to local records. Journalists are often forwarded by government officials to obtain requests for certain government records. Legal protections can help kind of make sure that critical information is in the hands of journalists as they need it. Turning to more of the legal elements, again, we have a lot of protections here on the ground. In the US, journalists have been confronted with a wide range of legal threats, including subpoenas and prior restraints. 

For those who might not be familiar with prior restraint, those are court orders that prevent news organizations or journalists from publishing newsworthy information. So, they essentially barred journalists from reporting on matters of public interest. In 2022, we saw several prior restraint cases here in the US and thankfully some of the judicial systems are working and most of those were reversed or dissolved. However these orders have a significant chilling effect and unless they are ultimately blocked, they can stop reporters from reporting on crucial stories. I think it is a bright spot in journalism here in the US and also across the globe, that has always existed but it might be coming more into the public eye, which is local journalism, community reporting where individuals from their community go to open meetings, making sure that they are covering whether it be a school board hearing or how election funds are being spent in their district or community. 

I have spent most of this past year working on the ground in several states here in the US looking at smaller news organizations, sometimes two or three journalists reporting on police accountability, local government officials, and abuse. These individuals are doing such crucial work, that they really are sometimes in the eyes and ears of the community. So, I do see a bright spot of local journalism happening across the country. Whether or not you can find this local journalism, I think there is still a lot of crucial work that we have to do to make sure that we are looking at all aspects of reporting. However, what I am seeing from a legal perspective becoming a threat is the actual status of the organization itself. 

So, as you can imagine, many newspapers have shuttered news organizations or have been dissolved and individuals are starting to find creative models to encourage news and reporting. One of the ways is by creating nonprofit institutions that still have the journalistic ethics of a news organization but they are built in to be able to receive grants and individual donations to cover their reporting. Part of this is to support what is happening on the ground and what we are seeing from a legal perspective. Unfortunately, when reporting, these smaller news organizations are generally a handful of people and they are almost always from the community, born, raised, and living in the communities where they are reporting and they are often working potentially in a language that is not English. Individuals are threatening their nonprofit status. So, essentially without their nonprofit status, they would not be able to report the news because they would have no funding. So, we have seen threats against that type of status, kind of a new way to threaten reporting. 

Then, when we turn global and think about press freedom, governments have become very clever about talking more about press freedom, perhaps even enacting laws across different countries to help show if they are on the press’s side. However, I think what is happening is that the legal rhetoric and ways in which the press is being threatened have changed. Governments and leaders have learned to talk very expressively about press freedom and the protection of journalists but oftentimes, other areas of law often complex and difficult-to-navigate areas of law are happening. We have seen this in the case of Maria Russa who faced a barrage of charges from the Filipino government. These charges were a series of criminal and civil cases, including tax evasion violations of foreign ownership rules. These areas of law are so complex and so difficult to navigate without expert legal counsel. 

They know that it is difficult to be able to have the funding to do this work. It is difficult to be able, when an individual gets a complaint like this, to be able to even navigate the area of law or how they respond to this request. Thankfully there is pro bono support for some journalists but a lot of times these threats are not related to press freedom laws themselves. Still, they are criminal cases that involve significant legal action, also, legal action that takes years to evaluate and change. So, as an eternal optimist, I would like to close by ending with a few potential solutions. 

We have to make sure that individual journalist newsrooms across the country and the globe understand how critical legal support is and how legal support needs to be an infrastructure that is funded, whether by civil society, individuals, or community groups. We need to make sure that journalists who are doing this difficult work are supported from a legal perspective. We need to make sure that they have access to legal assistance at every stage of reporting investigation. We have to increase training on how they can be helped. Potential law enforcement officials do not even know what to do or they do not have the bandwidth or they just do not bother. In that vein, we need to make sure that we are growing attorneys who are serving journalists, making sure that legal counsel is available to mitigate risks and address these non-press freedom areas of law that often include these criminal and complex areas of law. 

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