US Journalists Covering Protests at Risk of Arrest
At least 57 journalists were detained across the U.S. in 2021, with nearly all those cases taking place in just two cities where media were covering protests.
While the number of those detained is less than the record 142 media arrests in 2020, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which documents violations against media, says it is proving to be an ongoing issue.
“We came off of such a significant year for press freedom violations, but it doesn’t mean that it went down. What it means is that it is systemic and that it’s continuing; they don’t just stop on January 1,” Kirstin McCudden, the Tracker’s managing editor, told VOA.
In most cases, reporters are released quickly from police custody. Often journalists are impeded when police use a tactic known as kettling, where officers surround a group on all sides to confine them.
But McCudden says that even temporary detainment can affect reporting.
“When journalists are kept from doing their job — the ability to report — because they’ve either been moved away from the scene, or kept away somehow in the detainment, or captured in a kettle and not allowed to keep recording, it affects their ability to tell the story, to do what they have a right to do, which is both be there and be there to disseminate news,” McCudden said.
The majority of cases took place in two cities during 2021: Los Angeles in California, where the Tracker recorded 22 cases of media being detained, and Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, with 21.
Most detentions in LA occurred in March during the Echo Park protests, when police closed a homeless encampment where about 200 people were living.
In Brooklyn Center, 21 journalists were detained over three days in April while covering protests over the death of Daunte Wright, a Black man shot by police during a traffic stop. Wright died about ten miles from where George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020.
Minnesota State Patrol released a statement saying state police had not targeted the media and that it “respects the rights of the media to cover protest activity.”
It added that following feedback and a temporary court order, officers were “prohibited from enforcing general dispersal orders against the press.”
Neither the Los Angeles Police Department nor the Brooklyn Center Police Department responded to VOA’s requests for comment.
With the rise in arrests, some media organizations and state officials are looking for ways to improve relations.
This year, the Society of Professional Journalists Georgia Chapter partnered with the Georgia Public Training Center to develop an online training course.
The course offers guidance for officers on how to de-escalate interactions with the press during events such as protests and also seeks to educate journalists about maintaining appropriate boundaries while exercising their rights as members of the press.
Julie Moos, executive director of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, says that although journalists undergo training for how to safely cover protests, following the protocols doesn’t always prevent them from being detained or harassed.
“Journalists, as we’ve seen, too often can do everything right and still be detained, arrested, mistreated by law enforcement or by others in the course of doing their jobs,” Moos told VOA.
“We often don’t know what law enforcement knows, we can’t see through their eyes, we can’t always understand intent,” Moos said. But, she added, there are cases where media were showing press passes, or had vests or equipment clearly labeled “and nonetheless they were detained or arrested while simply doing their jobs.”
For some journalists, the arrest results in legal action.
At least eight journalists in the U.S. are facing criminal charges from earlier arrests, including radio reporter April Ehrlich, who was named one of the One Free Press Coalition’s 10 most urgent press freedom cases.
Ehrlich, whose legal name is Fonseca, was arrested in September 2020 while covering evictions of dozens of unhoused people camping in a Medford, Oregon park.
She has been charged with criminal trespassing, interfering with an officer and resisting arrest, charges that could lead to more than a year in prison and up to $7,500 in fines.
The journalist’s lawyer has previously told reporters that Ehrlich intends to plead not guilty and to contest the charge.
The trial is scheduled for March 2022, according to the Tracker.
The risk of arrest or assault while covering protests is a global problem for the media, according to UNESCO. Data from 65 countries over a five-year period, from 2015 to 2020, found journalists faced some level of risk while covering demonstrations and rallies.
“Unfortunately, we see press freedom under threat all over the world and increasingly in this country [the U.S.],” Moos said. “It has a very chilling effect on journalist decision-making and it has very challenging consequences for newsrooms that are trying to make decisions about how to keep their team safe while still covering the community.”