When Italian reporter Francesco Giovannetti told protesters that he was covering them for the left-leaning daily La Repubblica, insults poured out with abandon.
It was August 30 in Rome, outside the Ministry of Public Education, and demonstrators were speaking out against Italy’s “green pass,” a COVID-19 measure requiring workers to show proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test, or that they had recovered from the virus.
The verbal assault soon escalated into a physical one when one man, who moments earlier had threatened to kill Giovannetti, began to attack the journalist.
“He beat me in the face,” Giovannetti told VOA. “He landed four or five of these hits.”
The police soon intervened.
Attacked during protests
The attack occurred two days after Italian journalist Antonella Alba was harassed and assaulted while covering similar protests in Rome.
Neither journalist was seriously injured, but Giovannetti’s and Alba’s experiences underscore a broader danger for journalists who cover the pandemic in Europe and the United States.
Journalists have been harassed and attacked over reporting on COVID-19, especially when it comes to coverage of anti-masking campaigns, anti-vaccine campaigns and other forms of COVID-19 denialism.
“We are seen as propaganda right now,” Giovannetti said. “We are a target.”
Anti-media sentiment was on the rise before the pandemic, according to press freedom analysts. But it has intensified in part due to pressure from extremist and populist groups energized against public health mandates and vaccines, said Attila Mong, a correspondent in Berlin for the advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Seen as the enemy
In trying to report about health safety, reporters are being viewed by some as the enemy.
“Most responsible media outlets follow scientific and public health instructions and advice, and they broadcast public health messages around mask wearing, about vaccination, about social distancing,” Mong told VOA. “Given this fact, people who oppose these measures perceive the media outlets as part of the government.”
An international rise in populist rhetoric contributes to this phenomenon, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF) spokesperson Pauline Adès-Mével. “It’s important to recall that some political leaders, such as (former U.S. President) Trump or (Brazil’s president Jair) Bolsonaro, declared the press the enemy of the people,” she told VOA. “Such populist declarations are extremely worrying.”
Not to mention dangerous.
On August 28, Alba, who reports for Italian public broadcaster Rai News 24, was covering a Rome protest against Italy’s COVID-19 measures. Some of the protesters were affiliated with Forza Nuova – Italian for “New Force” – a far-right, ultra nationalist political party in Italy.
Alba said that demonstrators surrounded her, taunting her for wearing a mask, insulting her and calling the journalist a terrorist. One tried to take Alba’s phone, injuring her in the process.
“I was there to ask (demonstrators), ‘Why are you here?’” Alba told VOA. “My question was very simple, and I couldn’t find an answer that made sense.”
The most coherent explanation was that the green pass would restrict individual freedom. But Alba didn’t buy that. “This is a big contradiction,” Alba said. “If you want freedom, why are you treating me like this? Using violence is not freedom.”
“They wanted to be seen. They wanted to be heard. That’s why I was there, too, because a journalist reports for everybody,” she said.
COVID-19 deniers and anti-vaccination protesters stormed a newsroom of Slovenian public broadcaster RTV on September 3. And in early August, protesters tried to assault the offices of British public broadcaster BBC – but they had the wrong building.
Journalists in the U.S. haven’t been exempt.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has counted at least 24 pandemic-related press freedom incidents over the past 18 months, including five in August alone.
Two reporters were assaulted while covering an anti-vaccination rally in Los Angeles on August 14. Four days later in Miami, WLRN reporter Danny Rivero was assaulted while covering a mask mandate protest.
Rivero told VOA he thinks that some of the protesters, including one who assaulted him, were members of the far-right group, Proud Boys. Some of the protesters were chanting about a conspiracy theory that someone was paying to have a mask mandate instituted, Rivero said.
Across the street, a group of pro-mask mandate demonstrators had gathered.
Rivero was interviewing and taking photos of some of the anti-mask mandate protesters. One of them became angry when Rivero took his photo; a group soon formed around Rivero, shoving him and attempting to take his camera, which was around his neck.
“There was a big guy with a big belly, and he just kept walking up toward me, closer and closer,” Rivero told VOA. “And he started bumping me with his belly, and pushing me back and saying, ‘Take off the freaking camera, or I'm going to smash your face in.’”
Rivero had reported in tense environments before, but the harassment hadn’t gone beyond verbal attacks. He was shocked that people would physically assault him for doing his job.
“I took 30 seconds just to catch my breath a little bit, and then I just went right back to work,” Rivero said. The police advised him against returning to that side of the protest to interview more people, but Rivero didn’t have any issues.
Suspicious of media
The pandemic fury comes at a time when more Americans are suspicious of the media.
A June study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found 29% of people surveyed in the U.S. trust the news, placing the U.S. last out of 46 countries analyzed in the report.
The pandemic has provided people who were already wary of the media with the affirmation to double down, according to Kirstin McCudden, managing editor at the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
“If you were part of a group that didn’t trust the media to begin with, you can also blame them for the coronavirus coverage,” she told VOA.
“The blame rolls downhill toward journalists,” McCudden said, adding that the media find themselves at an “intersection of being responsible for the news and blamed for the news.”
WLRN reporter Rivero says he views the current environment “as a growing level of not just distrust but disdain for the work that we do.”
“They don’t want to hear things that might force them to question things and that might poke holes in things that they believe, one way or the other. They don’t like to hear that, so we become a target,” Rivero said.
CPJ’s Mong told VOA that news outlets, as well as politicians and authorities, are responsible for addressing this issue.
“Journalists themselves very often don’t come forward because they think it’s already part of their everyday lives,” Mong said. “It’s extremely important that even the slightest cases are investigated.”
For Italian journalist Alba, being assaulted has not deterred her.
“I am continuing to report,” she told VOA. “I’m not afraid.”