By Linh Nguyen
The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Getty Images wrote a letter to the National Governors Association this week, urging U.S. governors to immediately open investigations into more than 60 reported cases of assault against photojournalists covering the nationwide George Floyd protests by police.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a website and database run by the Freedom of the Press Foundation with support from CPJ, is investigating more than 400 reports of journalists (60 of which are photojournalists), assaulted, arrested or otherwise prevented from covering the recent protests.
The majority of the attacks were executed by the police, said the committee, including some incidents where journalists clearly identified themselves as members of the media – they were still targeted with rubber bullets, tear gas, physically shoved to the ground or arrested.
Since May 26 when the protests began, at least three photographers have incurred severe injuries to the eye and one has been permanently blinded in one eye.
The letter urges governors to launch immediate investigations into these attacks, make their findings public and hold those responsible accountable. In addition, they request that law enforcement officers receive regular training on the First Amendment rights of journalists covering demonstrations, rallies and other public events.
“It is incumbent upon you as the top elected leader in your state to ensure that journalists are able to report safely and without fear of reprisal from law enforcement or other agents of the state,” the letter wrote.
Visual journalism requires proximity to the subject and the events being documented. Photographers and video journalists working on the frontlines carry their cameras and other equipment, which makes it difficult for them to keep a low profile. However, their equipment should clearly distinguish them as media, said the letter, adding that their obvious identification as journalists should protect them from attacks by law enforcement.
“It is outrageous that so many photographers and visual journalists have been not just injured, but in many cases specifically targeted, simply for doing their job,” said CPJ Emergencies Director Maria Salazar Ferro.
“The risks photojournalists face daily are not new. We have spoken to photographers working from Gaza to Caracas who say they always operate in a high-risk environment. But it is deeply concerning to see the brazenness and scale at which photographers across the U.S. have been deliberately attacked while covering a story of historic importance.”
Many incidents were captured on camera. The letter lists five incidents over the span of three days from May 28 to May 30.
On May 28, Hyong Chang, a photojournalist for The Denver Post, was struck with pepper balls while documenting protests in Denver, Colorado. Chang was taking photos near officers when they began firing at the crowd. Chang said a police officer fired directly at him.
The next day, at least three other photographers were also struck in Denver. At least eight journalists were assaulted while covering protests in Minneapolis, Minnesota, including three photographers, one of whom was an Associated Press photojournalist. Freelance journalist Linda Tirado was permanently blinded in one eye after being struck by a rubber bullet on the side of her head and her left eye.
On May 30, a Los Angeles Times photographer was struck in the eye and pepper sprayed while covering protests in Minneapolis. She was wearing a flak jacket labeled “TV.” Reuters cameraman Julio-Cesar Chavez and his security advisor were also struck by rubber bullets while covering protests in Minneapolis.
“There must be no impunity for acts of violence by law enforcement against journalists, particularly in cases where journalists were clearly identifiable,” the letter wrote. “We urge you to forcefully reiterate your support for the rights of journalists and media workers, and the importance of a free press in covering and reporting on protests and public events, as well as their fundamental role in holding public institutions accountable.”
Last week on June 10, 2020, the CPJ wrote a letter to President Trump, on behalf of 72 international press freedom groups, urging him to speak out against attacks on the press and in support of the rights of journalists to report freely, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
They noted that freedom of the press is “born out of a recognition that journalists serve as independent monitors of social and political developments, and are essential to democracy, transparency, and accountability.”
The letter argued that what happens in the United States has repercussions for journalists around the world because when the U.S. backslides, because it encourages authoritarian-leaning leaders around the world to restrict the press, especially after recognizing the U.S. as a free, democratic superpower.
“Instead of condemning journalists and the media, we urge you to commend and celebrate them as the embodiment of the First Amendment, which is the envy of so many countries around the world,” the letter insisted.
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