Opinion: Oregon journalists confront threats to all our freedoms
Last year was a dangerous and challenging year for journalists across the country, including here in Oregon.
As they sought to inform their communities about everything from COVID-19 to nationwide demonstrations, journalists confronted numerous obstacles: a record number of arrests and attacks at the hands of law enforcement while documenting protests in support of racial justice and police accountability, limited access to court hearings after the pandemic forced courtrooms to close, and government officials unwilling to release public records that could help hold institutions accountable for their handling of the pandemic.
Amid all of this, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press launched its Local Legal Initiative in Oregon to ensure that journalists and news organizations have the legal support too often needed — at no cost to them — to overcome these kinds of obstacles that can hinder their ability to provide critical enterprise and investigative reporting to their communities.
Here are four press freedom issues Oregonians are likely to confront in 2021 — and how the Reporters Committee can help:
The right to document protests
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and related demonstrations at statehouses around the country, including an unlawful assembly in Salem, confirmed that civil unrest will continue in the New Year. Journalists have the right to document demonstrations, and the Reporters Committee will continue to monitor how law enforcement responds to these events in Oregon, taking action when needed to help ensure that this right is protected.
To help journalists safely and effectively keep Oregonians informed about these historic events and how they shape local communities, the Reporters Committee also offers a guide and tip sheet for covering demonstrations, and trainings on journalists' newsgathering rights and how to stay safe.
As wildfires continue to ravage large swaths of Oregon, state law continues to prohibit journalists from venturing past fire lines without an escort, making it difficult for reporters to provide essential coverage that could inform the public and help community members stay safe.
There are currently over a dozen bills in Oregon's 2021 legislative session relating to wildfires, including one — H.B. 2486 — with provisions that would allow members of the news media to report from beyond the wildfire line, as some other states do. If passed, it could expand journalists' real-time access to emergency scenes, including wildfire zones, when on-the-ground reporting is most needed.
Access to public meetings
As government officials meet to plan for reopening schools, businesses and government buildings, it's essential that they provide meaningful access to members of the press and the public.
Whether you're a reporter or a concerned member of the public interested in observing a government meeting or court hearing, the Reporters Committee's Open Meetings guide can help demystify Oregon's laws on accessing these proceedings. Reporters Committee attorneys will continue to closely monitor access issues in the state and, if necessary, challenge closed meetings and legal proceedings in court to ensure the press and public remain informed about important discussions on education, public health and the local economy.
Access to public records
Public records access is likely to be especially important in 2021, as journalists in Oregon request information to better understand the impact of and response to COVID-19, as well as law enforcement's handling of demonstrations.
Members of the press and the public in the state have long expressed concerns about the unwillingness of government agencies to comply with records requests, as well as their practice of charging excessive fees for access to certain records. Education, policy and litigation are all needed to address these issues.
Journalists and other Oregonians can use the Reporters Committee's Open Records guide to help them understand the law and push back against public records denials and high fees. A bill currently before the Legislature, House Bill 2485, would require fee waivers when a records request benefits the public interest. And Reporters Committee attorneys plan to engage in litigation on behalf of Oregon journalists seeking access to public records to help shape the state's law toward greater transparency, not just for reporters, but for all Oregonians.
The year 2020 may be behind us, but the threats against press freedom and the public's right to know are not, and the Reporters Committee stands ready to help ensure that in Oregon, the press and public's right to know is protected.
Ellen Osoinach is the Local Legal Initiative attorney in Oregon for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
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