What in the heck is going on with the police in Ferguson, Missouri, and journalists?
The St. Louis suburb has been the scene of peaceful protests and charged emotions, and nightly chaos and rampant looting, following the Aug. 9 shooting death of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a yet-to-be-identified police officer.
In the confusion and violence of the first nights of violence, journalists first reported being ordered away from where rioting occurred or barred from entering the city. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch photojournalist who had been assaulted Sunday night by a looter sought refuge in a police line — only to be asked later by an officer “why are you here?”, taken into custody and transported to a police station.
On Wednesday night, incidents involving journalists involved tear gas and arrests:
— A KSDK TV crew reported that seconds after filming police tussling with a man, their video camera was hit by a “bean-bag round,” the type of non-lethal weapon police were reported to be using to break up demonstrations. The crew later was approached by police with drawn weapons and ordered to leave the area.
— A tear gas canister was fired at an Al Jazeera America TV crew, which had set up a camera on a sidewalk outside an established police perimeter. As the journalists fled the gas, armed officers were videotaped tilting the crew’s camera toward the ground.
— Wesley Lowery, a reporter for The Washington Post, and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post, were detained and led away by armor-clad police carrying assault weapons who ordered journalists to leave a McDonald’s where news media were working and recharging equipment. Both were later released without explanation, with one report saying their release came after the city police chief was asked by The Los Angeles Times about the arrests.
At a midday press conference Thursday, Ferguson Chief of Police Jon Belmar said, in response to questions about the various incidents, “The media is not a target.”
But David Boardman, president of the American Society of News Editors, said just hours earlier in a posted statement that “from the beginning of this situation, the police have made conscious decisions to restrict information and images coming from Ferguson. Of course, these efforts largely have been unsuccessful, as the nation and the world are still seeing for themselves the heinous actions of the police. For every reporter they arrest, every image they block, every citizen they censor, another will still write, photograph and speak.”
Reilly said the scene during his arrest Wednesday was “madness.” In an account posted by Politico, he said he “was not moving quickly enough for their liking ... I was told I had 45 seconds, 30 seconds, pack up all my stuff and leave, at which point the officer in question ... held me back, grabbed my things and shoved them into my bag.” After being handcuffed, Reilly said, “The worst part was he slammed my head against the glass purposely on the way out of the McDonald’s then sarcastically apologized for it.”
Martin D. Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, said “there was absolutely no justification for Lowery’s arrest” and that the organization “was appalled by the conduct of the officers involved.” Baron said that Lowery “was illegally instructed to stop taking video of officers (and) ... after contradictory instructions on how to exit, he was slammed against a soda machine and then handcuffed.” Baron said police behavior was “wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.”
On Twitter, Lowery wrote, “Apparently, in America, in 2014, police can manhandle you, take you into custody, put you in cell & then open the door like it didn’t happen.”
No, the government may not do that — to journalists or any other citizen, all of whom enjoy the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. The nation’s founders provided constitutional protection for a free press precisely to keep authorities from figuratively or literally manhandling or muzzling what they intended to be a “watchdog on government.”
To effectively fulfill that watchdog role, journalists must be able to see and report to their fellow citizens what government is doing — whether that is a grand jury investigation into Brown’s death or how police are responding to what clearly is, at times, lawless behavior in the streets of Ferguson.
Local citizens and the nation need to know, from a variety of sources, what is happening in this strife-torn city, and to be sure no stone is left unturned in investigating how Brown came to be shot. And press conferences and official statements alone are not enough to overcome the distrust over yet another shooting of a black teen by a police officer.
Freedom to report the news necessarily means the freedom to gather it, whether a journalist for mainstream media or a citizen using a cell phone camera.
Police and others in Ferguson anxious about those reporting on their activities should know that “no news” is not “good news” — for them or anyone else in their city or in America.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.