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Arrest of CNN Crew in Minneapolis a 'Violation of First Amendment'


A security guard walks behind shattered glass at the CNN building at the CNN Center in the aftermath of a demonstration against police violence on May 30, 2020, in Atlanta.
A security guard walks behind shattered glass at the CNN building at the CNN Center in the aftermath of a demonstration against police violence on May 30, 2020, in Atlanta.

A CNN news crew on Friday live broadcast their own arrest by police in the U.S. state of Minnesota, as they covered protests over the death of an African-American man.

Police handcuffed and arrested CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, producer Bill Kirkos and photojournalist Leonel Mendez at about 5 a.m. CT in Minneapolis, despite Jimenez identifying the crew as press. All three were later released without charge.

The arrests came amid widespread protests over the death of George Floyd, an African American man who pleaded for air while handcuffed, as a white police officer knelt on his neck.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issued what he called a “very public apology” Friday for the arrest of the CNN crew, saying, ““There is absolutely no reason something like this should happen.” He added that he is “owning” this and taking full responsibility. “This is a very public apology to that team. It should not happen.”

CNN said on Twitter the arrests were a "clear violation of their First Amendment rights." The U.S. broadcaster added that police had asked another of their correspondents, who is white, to move but that he had not been arrested.

Josh Campbell, a reporter for CNN who was also covering the protests, said he was approached by police but not arrested.

"I was treated much differently," Campbell told CNN. The broadcaster reported that Jimenez is black and Latino, Mendez is Hispanic, and Kirkos and Campbell are both white.

The Minnesota State Patrol said on Twitter that the journalists were among four people arrested while police cleared the streets. It added that they were released after police confirmed they were media.

Bruce Gordon, director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, directed VOA to the state patrol tweet on the incident posted earlier on Friday, and Governor Walz's comments at a news conference.

Walz said there was "absolutely no reason something like this should happen."

"In a situation like this, even if you're clearing an area, we have got to ensure that there is a safe spot for journalism to tell the story. The issue here is trust," Walz said.

The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) president, Dorothy Tucker, condemned the arrests as "unnecessary, and a violation of the First Amendment."

The Save Journalism Project said Jimenez's arrest "underscores the reasons for the protests he was covering."

"Jimenez was arrested for doing his job, accurately reporting to the American people what is happening during an ongoing crisis. He was arrested for reporting on the protests of the killing of George Floyd — an unarmed black man — by Minneapolis police while being black himself," the free press advocacy group said.

Since 2017, more than 40 journalists have been arrested and at least 19 journalists had equipment searched or seized while covering protests, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which documents press freedom violations across the United States.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker told VOA it is currently investigating at least four cases of journalists being "hit with crowd-control projectiles" during protests in Minneapolis recent days.

"Protests can be dangerous places for journalists. Since the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker began documenting aggressions against the press in 2017, we've published more than 100 incidents of journalists either arrested, assaulted, had their equipment damaged or searched or seized while reporting from protests," Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the Tracker, told VOA.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has previously reported that journalists of color say covering protests carries additional risk.

Two African-American reporters for WHAM-TV were arrested while covering protests in Rochester, New York, over police brutality in July 2016. And during the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, then-Washington Post national correspondent and NABJ's Emerging Journalist of the Year Wesley Lowery was arrested alongside Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly, covering the unrest.

"I wasn't shocked, I wasn't surprised," Lowery said of watching footage of Friday's arrest in Minneapolis.

"And this is not to excuse the behavior at all," he told VOA, adding that he knew from his own experience that these "dynamic situations" make it difficult for law enforcement to figure out what to do. "They're receiving pressure to keep order; they're receiving pressure to respect First Amendment rights — which, again, I unequivocally believe they need to — but I understand how poor decisions can be made in that pressure cooker."

Lowery said official condemnation in these situations is vital.

He is now a correspondent for "60 in 6," a soon-to-launch spinoff of the CBS series “60 Minutes” that is scheduled to stream on Quibi mobile platforms.

Rights groups have condemned the arrests as an assault on press freedom.

"The First Amendment protects news-gathering, and prohibits the government from using police power as a pretext for interfering with press freedoms. Arresting journalists to prevent reporting on a public demonstration is not acceptable," said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Free Press.

"News coverage of protests like the one in Minneapolis is essential to informing the public and understanding the concerns of our communities."

The CPJ said the arrests "ring of intimidation" and that journalists should be free to report without fear of retaliation.