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A Blow to Freedom of the Press

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Of all the troubling aspects of the Bloomberg Administration's decision to remove demonstrators from Zuccotti Park on November 15th, none proved more damaging to our city's democracy than the exclusion and harassment of the press.

The sequence of events on that day has no parallel in recent memory. Just after 2 a.m. on November 15th, Jared Malsin, a blog reporter for the New York Times, was arrested at Broadway and John Street, caught in a crowd the police had ordered to disperse. At 4:30 a.m., Patrick Hedlund, a reporter with DNAinfo, was arrested along the NYPD perimeter of Zuccotti Park while trying to report on the NYPD action. At 11:57 a.m., Matthew Lysiak, a photographer for the Daily News covering the standoff between police and protesters at Sixth Avenue and Grand Street sent out a message via the paper's live blog: "I've been arrested." They were among 26 journalists arrested during the eviction of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

We cannot stand for this.

While the legality of Mayor Bloomberg's midnight raid on Zuccotti Park is subject to conflicting opinions, there can be no doubt as to whether or not the media have been treated in an acceptable manner. They haven't.

Freedom of the press is one of the founding principles of our country. Our system of government cannot function without skeptical reporters asking probing questions, and photographers and video journalists having the access to capture images and bear witness to the messy work of democracy. In Mayor Bloomberg's world, democracy has often seemed like an afterthought. Yet these recent events are too egregious to let slide.

All elected officials have their problems with the press at some point. But by attacking, intimidating and arresting reporters, and concocting phony rules to keep them away from the subjects they're covering, the administration has prevented the media from telling the full story of these protests to the public. While Commissioner Kelly's post-raid dictum against press interference is to be commended, we cannot merely ignore the chain of command in our City administration that encouraged police officers to arrest numerous reporters during the November 15th Occupy Wall Street eviction. The Bloomberg Administration must directly address what orders were given that resulted in such violence and mayhem that night.

The vast majority of our law enforcement officers have behaved laudably in recent weeks, as have the protesters. Yet repression and suppression of the press -- at times with violence -- betrays the worst tendencies of our City government. So many events occur every day that give us pride in New York City -- the bravery of our first responders, the dedication of our teachers, the eloquence of our spiritual leaders, the ingenuity of our businesses -- but the decision to block journalists from covering the events of November 15 ought to shame us.

I appreciate concerns about the safety of journalists. Yet their very job descriptions accept an inherent risk involved with reporting. They travel to Iran, to Afghanistan, to China and to Syria. They face dangerous and hostile regimes bent on the suppression of information. They are jailed, and they are abused.

But not here.

And beyond the harsh nature of these assaults, we cannot ignore the inherent censorship behind this particular violence. As the Administration continues to use post-hoc rationalizations about "press credentials" to legitimize reporter arrests, those involved in our City government only look increasingly suspect.

For a city to function effectively, our press must be allowed to bear witness to police action. Regardless of one's opinion on Occupy Wall Street, all New Yorkers benefit from a vigilant and attentive press, just as we benefit from a vigilant and attentive police force. And when government intentionally hinders the press's ability to view or report on events, we must demand more accessibility.

I have three simple suggestions for the administration. First, disclose who made decisions regarding the exclusion treatment of reporters on November 15. Second, clearly state city policy regarding press access to events of public importance and submit it for review to a select committee of the New York Press Association. Third, please bring transparency and 21st century common sense to the issuance of press credentials.

As Public Advocate, much of my work focuses on ensuring accountability and transparency throughout our city. When government agencies refused to respond to Freedom of Information Law requests, my voice joined reporters in their demands for accessible public documents. Like most New Yorkers, I believe our City thrives when the public is informed and aware of the inner-workings of our government.

Just as a city without vigilant police would fall into disrepair, a city devoid of watchful journalists would lead to an obscure and secretive government. To function effectively, we must foster and protect the rights of both.

The American tradition of freedom of the press was born in New York City. In the 18th century, a journalist named John Peter Zenger published a series of articles critical of the royal governor, for which he was jailed. After eight months in prison, a jury acquitted him, setting the precedent for the freedoms we enjoy today.

This belief is in our blood. It is in our history. It is enshrined in the very first amendment of our constitution.

To ignore these rights is not only un-American -- it threatens our entire democratic system.

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