Atlanta Police Department officers detain filmmaker Michael Watchulonis June 15, 2022 at the public safety training center site, where he was working on a documentary about tree-sitting protesters, before pressuring him to delete the footage in exchange for going free. The image is from footage he shot of the entire incident, which is now the subject of his federal court lawsuit against the officers and the City.

Atlanta and Georgia bucked a national trend of declining arrests of journalists in 2022 with two “Cop City” protest coverage incidents, according to a recent analysis of U.S. Press Freedom Tracker data.

The Tracker is a national database operated by the New York-based Freedom of the Press Foundation in partnership with other groups, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The Reporters Committee recently published a compilation of a four-part newsletter series it released last month, starting with World Press Freedom Day on May 3, that looked at the database’s trends in 2022.

Among the trends was a continued decline in confirmed arrests or detentions of journalists, with 15 reported nationwide, from a massive spike during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. However, two of those 2022 incidents – about 13 percent of the total – involved journalists targeted during coverage of the protests against Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center in DeKalb County. 

Both incidents in the database were first revealed by SaportaReport. In one case, documentary filmmaker Michael Watchulonis was pressured by Atlanta and possibly state police at the training center site to delete video footage under threat of arrest. He is now suing the officers and the City in federal court. In another case, a journalist with Unicorn Riot says he was detained by Atlanta and state police and had his notebook seized while covering a “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest in Freedom Park. 

Unicorn Riot journalist Ryan Fatica films a Georgia State Patrol officer ordering his own arrest in a public park during a May 14, 2022 protest against Atlanta’s public safety training center in Freedom Park. Fatica was later released without charge, but says his reporter’s notebook is still missing. (Image from a video posted by Unicorn Riot.)

Another legally dubious case not in the database involves a man arrested for filming police while driving a car; he claims he was working as a journalist at the time. Complaints of unconstitutional harassment of journalists have continued this year, with a Truthout reporter claiming she was subjected to a retaliatory traffic stop after covering a Downtown protest.

The Reporters Committee analysis also looked at trends in protecting journalists from being forced to provide information – such as the identities of confidential sources – to courts or police. The 2022 data included two Georgia incidents – grand jury subpoenas to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and independent journalists George Chidi as part of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s high-profile investigation of former President Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election results. 

The Reporters Committee said that national declines in reports of assaults and arrests or detentions of journalists are good news, but the human impact of the cases is significant and persistent problems remain. “If we drill down into those stories, we see that there’s still cause for concern about the state of press freedom in the United States, even if the numbers have improved,” the analysis says.

On the issue of arrests in particular, the Reporters Committee noted that law is still being made and cases still being decided, many stemming from 2020. “There is, of course, no permanent and uniform solution to the problem of police retaliation against journalists — the drive for accountability will move forward case by case, jurisdiction by jurisdiction,” the analysis says.

Attempts to crack down on the “Cop City” protests have produced a large number of other allegations of free-speech and free-press violations. They include the use of domestic terrorism charges in cases with no obvious violence, the retaliatory arrests of dozens of protesters, the arrests of bail fund organizers on money laundering and fraud charges shortly before a training center funding vote, APD’s second-in-command urging residents to promote a “narrative” that any out-of-state protester is a terrorist, the removal of a skeptical member from an official advisory committee, lawyers attempting to demand internal records of advocacy journalists, Georgia Tech’s removal of a student journalist’s blog post, and felony intimidation charges against activists who posted flyers in Bartow County identifying a Georgia State Patrol officer reportedly involved in the police killing of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran after the protester allegedly shot a trooper.

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  1. It’s tragic what’s happening to journalism in this city and state and country. It is dying or becoming right wing fascist propaganda. The AJC is nothing more than right wing propaganda right now. The local TV news, especially FOX 5 and WSB, is nothing more than right wing propaganda right now. And this is at a time when Georgia Republicans are passing extremist fascist right wing laws, guns everywhere, anti gay, abortion bans, etc. Who is fighting back against this nonsense? Creative Loafing is dead. No more alternative weeklies. Democracy dies in darkness. Most people aren’t even aware of what’s going on, as Republicans want it.

    1. Fortunately, we do have great reporters like John Ruch providing critical information right here in the Saporta Report. There is also Timothy Pratt at the Guardian and of course, Atlanta Community Press Collective. Give these folks your money, they are doing important work.

  2. Also grateful for the work of John Ruch at Saporta Report and the Atlanta Community Press Collective. Frustrated that GPB is cancelling Political Rewind, another important source of information about local topics with informed contributors from varying political perspectives.

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