The environmental activists worked quickly. Within 30 seconds they had graffitied a message on the gallery wall and glued themselves to the heavy gilt frames encasing two masterpieces.
As their protest unfolded at Madrid’s Prado Museum on November 5, Spanish journalist Joanna Gimenez i Garcia was there, filming on her cellphone.
But when museum security intervened, she found herself targeted. In footage posted to Twitter, Gimenez is heard saying, “I am a journalist, I am a journalist,” as a guard attempts to cover her phone and stop her recording.
The guard responds: “This is not news.”
Gimenez said a friend in contact with the Futuro Vegetal group had tipped her off that a protest would take place. But she didn’t know what would happen.
At the gallery, the protesters had glued themselves to the frames of Goya’s "Naked Maja" and "Clothed Maja" paintings and had scrawled on the wall "1.5 C" – the limit on global warming that scientists say is needed to avert the worst damage from climate change.
From witnesses to targets
Initially, police contacted Gimenez, who works as a freelancer for the news website El Salto, and a photojournalist named in reports only as Isabel, to ask for witness statements.
But the journalists soon found themselves under investigation alongside the protesters for allegedly committing public order offenses and causing damage to the national heritage. They were detained for 30 hours in a police station in Madrid.
Individuals convicted of those charges can face fines or up to three years in prison.
The incident was the latest in a spate of cases in which journalists covering climate change protests staged in art museums or on highways found themselves detained.
The detentions have been condemned by media organizations including the watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and prompted one British police force to call for an independent investigation.
“Journalists should not be stopped from carrying out their work here in Spain or in any country,” Alfonso Bauluz, the president of RSF in Spain, told VOA.
In Britain, Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, issued a statement after police arrested three journalists at a Just Stop Oil protest.
“Filmmakers and photographers play an important role in relaying accurate information and quality journalism to members of the public,” she said in a statement.
Police have mistaken journalists for protesters before. Security forces in several countries have spoken of the difficulty in the heat of a moment of distinguishing between journalist and protester. In the environmental protests, however, those detained said they all clearly identified themselves as being with the media.
In Britain, journalists have been arrested while covering protests by Just Stop Oil, a climate change group that has doused Vincent van Gogh’s famous "Sunflowers" painting in tomato soup and brought the M25, London’s main motorway, to a standstill.
Rich Felgate, a British filmmaker who is making a documentary about the movement, has been arrested twice.
The first time, on October 15, he was detained on suspicion of conspiracy to commit public nuisance at a street demonstration in London.
Then on November 7, he was held on suspicion of committing criminal damage while filming protesters blocking the M25. He was released both times without charge and does not face further action.
“The first time I was arrested, I was held for about four hours, the second time for about 13 hours. The police were trying to find out if I was a journalist,” he told VOA.
"At first, I felt angry they were doing this. I think they had it in for me. They are trying to intimidate the media from reporting these protests. But it will not stop me going back. It makes it more important to report what is going on. Press freedom is something that has been hard fought for,” he said.
Felgate said police asked him to help them find out more about the Just Stop Oil movement by turning informer.
“I was not going to do that. They don’t seem to understand that for journalists, the preservation of their contacts is important,” he said.
The police force, whose officers also detained photographer Tom Bowles on November 7 and Charlotte Lynch, from LBC, a London-based radio station, at a protest the following day, said in an earlier statement that an independent police force had been asked to investigate and “identify any learning” for police in managing such incidents.
Hertfordshire police did not respond to VOA's request for comment about Felgate's claims. But in a separate statement, the county’s chief constable, Charlie Hall, said last Thursday that he "fully appreciate(d) the legitimate concerns raised by the arrests of the journalists" and that he had called to apologize to them.
Hall added that while "the review has correctly concluded that the arrests of the journalists were not justified, and that changes in training and command need to be made, it found no evidence to indicate that officers acted maliciously or were deliberately disproportionate."
He said the review found areas of "valuable learning" for policing future protests, that the force would share nationally.
In Spain, Gimenez declined a request to be interviewed by VOA “for personal and family reasons” but said her interview, which appeared in elsaltodiario.es, could be used.
“Being in jail is something unpleasant and distressing but on an ethical level I was calm because I was only doing my job,” she said in that interview.
“At around 7 in the evening the police called me to say that I had to testify as a witness about what happened. I said there was no problem.”
She added: “Barely an hour had passed when the police called me again but in a much more insistent tone and told me to go [to a police station] as soon as possible.”
She was asked to testify at the station, but while she was there, police told her she would be detained.
Gimenez said in her account that a lawyer tried to explain that an arrest was not necessary but “the police officer did not let him speak, interrupted him several times and arrested [us].”
Javier Moreno Gomez, a lawyer for Gimenez and her colleague, told VOA, “I cannot comment on whether this case will reach trial or whether the police usually arrest journalists, because the case is still under investigation.”
He said the arrest of journalists was “unusual given that the right to liberty of information of the journalists was not guaranteed.”
“We face a case of repression to restrict the right to information,” he added.
The Spanish National Police declined to comment.