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Journalists, Rights Groups Alarmed by Arrests at Protests

FILE - AP photojournalists John Minchillo and Julio Cortez cover continued demonstrations in reaction to the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minn., May 31, 2020.
FILE - AP photojournalists John Minchillo and Julio Cortez cover continued demonstrations in reaction to the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minn., May 31, 2020.

Chris Dunker, a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star, said he was shocked to be briefly detained while covering a demonstration in Lincoln, Nebraska, on May 31.

At the time, the reporter was wearing a vest clearly labeled Press. Police knocked him to the ground, handcuffed and briefly detained Dunker, before releasing him. The journalist then continued filming.

“To see, just like the flagrant way that law enforcement has been targeting journalists, violating their rights to report, arresting them, you know, just for doing their jobs under the First Amendment has been very alarming,” Dunker told VOA.

The reporter is one of several journalists to be detained while covering protests over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is investigating over 50 similar cases of police detaining the news media.

Press rights are same as protesters

The arrests are an infringement of First Amendment rights and risk damaging the U.S. standing overseas as a haven for press freedom overseas, rights groups and media experts have said.

When covering a protest, journalists are afforded the same rights as a demonstrator, said Sarah Matthews, a staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), which provides pro bono legal representation to journalists.

A journalist is protected by the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, Matthews said.

“What that means at the really basic level is that journalists cannot be targeted by police with attacks and assault, simply for doing their job, when those journalists are complying with lawful orders by the police,” Matthews told VOA.

The attorney said that videos of journalists being arrested or attacked have been “extremely distressing.”

'Did everything right'

She cited a May 29 incident in which police in Minneapolis arrested three members of a CNN news crew who had identified themselves as press and asked law enforcement where in the streets they should be reporting from. Matthews said the news crew “did everything right.

“This demonstrates that there's a need for law enforcement to take the initiative, to make sure that this doesn't happen,” Matthews said.

The RCFP is one of several groups calling for investigations into the attacks and arrests.

Lawsuit filed by ACLU

Thee American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota on June 3 filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis, its police department, and the Minnesota State Patrol on behalf of journalists attacked, threatened, or “arrested without cause” while working.

And on June 8, about 600 organizations issued a joint letter calling for a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council and an independent inquiry into police violence against protesters and journalists, Reuters reported.

Some press freedom advocates said they fear the incidents could have broad consequences.

“For other countries, they look to the U.S. to set a standard,” Kathy Kiely, the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, told VOA.

“To the extent that other countries see that right being trampled on by authorities in this country, you do worry that it greenlights other countries, greenlights behaviors that really go against American values.”

A bad example?

Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, added that while the U.S. is one of the world’s most welcoming countries toward journalists, other countries could use recent incidents against America.

“Governments that don't share our values would readily jump on this as evidence that the U.S. is not what it claims to be,” Paulson said. “Other governments will point to this as hypocrisy by the United States.”

The board of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has warned that the police response could “empower the despots and autocrats who show no mercy in the relentless suppression of their own people and press.”

In a June 5 statement to U.S. governors, mayors and police chiefs, the CPJ board highlighted the important role the press plays and added, “Every effort to impede their coverage is an effort to deny information to that public — the same public that you and your departments serve.”

VOA director Amanda Bennett is on the CPJ board of directors.

CPJ advocacy director Courtney Radsch told VOA that the press freedom group has been providing emergency assistance and will be contacting local and state officials about the treatment of journalists.

“We're going to make this a big headache for the police departments,” Radsch said. “They have the responsibility to protect journalists and to uphold the law, the primary basis of which is our Constitution.”