Outrageous charges against journalists in Ferguson

Reporters Without Borders condemns the recent charges filed by the St. Louis County Police Department against two journalists who covered last year’s protests surrounding Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson.

The Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was charged with trespassing and interfering with a police officer. Charges were also filed against Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly who was arrested with Lowery on August 13 2014. The two journalists were charging their equipment in a Ferguson McDonald’s when police officers came in to clear the area. They arrested the two journalists after Lowery started recording the encounter and asked questions about contradictory orders to exit the restaurant. They were taken to the Ferguson Police Department and released after being briefly detained.

“Charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageous. You’d have thought law enforcement authorities would have come to their senses about this incident. Wes Lowery should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority. This latest action represents contemptible overreaching by prosecutors who seem to have no regard for the role of journalists seeking to cover a major story and following normal practice”, stated Martin Baron, The Washington Post’s executive editor.

Lowery and Reilly were among at least 15 journalists arrested during last year’s protests. Four of these journalists sued the St. Louis County Police Department for battery, false arrest, and unreasonable search and seizure.

This August’s protests were generally less violent than last year’s, but there have been reported moments of chaos, accounts of violence, and many protesters have been arrested.

Journalists sprayed and assaulted

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch staff photographer Robert Cohen was hit in the face with pepper spray while photographing street blockages on August 10, 2015. Contacted by Reporters Without Borders, Cohen explained that county police in riot gear demanded that people in the area move off the street and onto the sidewalk. Although Cohen said he complied with orders, police began to shout at a man on his right to move and then a steady stream of pepperspray was fired at the crowd, hitting Cohen directly. Thankfully he was watching the event through his camera lens and was spared any injury to his eyes. He told Reporters Without Borders “I don't know if I was targeted or not, but I certainly know that these two officers were yelling at one man and that a wide stream of spray was unnecessary. They certainly saw me right there, on the side of the road doing my job. I'm not new to the protests. I've been there since Aug(ust) 10, 2014. While they may not know my name (...) (I) always have a press lanyard around my neck. Last year, members of the media were hit mostly with tear gas, but that is very hard to target (...) it goes pretty much everywhere. But with these pepper spray containers, it is very easy to choose who is hit or not hit.”

Paul Hampel, another reporter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was beaten and robbed Sunday night as he covered break-ins on West Florissant avenue. He was assaulted from behind, punched and kicked several times in the face and in the back of the head, and his cell phone and wallet were stolen, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He suffered a concussion and was kept at a hospital overnight for observation.

“My biggest concern last August was being arrested by police. This time around, my biggest concern is robbery - and our journalists have been working as teams to stay safe, ” explains Cohen.

Alarming trend

“The United States, the country of the First Amendment, cannot afford to keep journalists from reporting on major civil rights issues developing across the country. The ability of reporters to freely cover protests in response to rising tensions between police and minority communities is paramount in a democratic society and should not be hindered by violent attacks or arbitrary arrests”, affirms Delphine Halgand, the US Director of Reporters Without Borders. “We urge the US authorities to not leave police abuses unpunished and to do everything possible to guarantee the safety of journalists during protests.”

The arrests and attacks of journalists in Ferguson are unfortunately not isolated cases. At least two journalists were attacked or arrested by police during the Baltimore protests surrounding Freddie Gray’s death between April 12 and April 28 of this year.

These events mark an alarming trend of curtailing freedom of the press in the United States. Since 2013, the U.S.’s ranking on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index has fallen by 14 points. It is now ranked 49 out of 180 countries.

Furthermore, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a highly critical report of the United States’ human rights record as part of its Universal Periodic Review on May 11, 2015. The report included 348 recommendations, many of which addressed police brutality and racial profiling.

“It is therefore now more important than ever that the U.S. reaffirm its commitment to freedom of the press and access to information in order to shed light on these abuses. National security and public order cannot take precedence over the most fundamental democratic tool for the protection and advancement of human rights,” says Halgand.

A coalition of 39 news outlets and media organizations including Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter on August 18, 2015 to St. Louis County officials protesting the recent filing of criminal charges against the two reporters over the incidents that occurred during the protests in Ferguson, Mo., last summer.

Published on
Updated on 06.06.2016