By: Gina Gemba — Correspondent
For years, journalists have risked their reputations, safety, and sometimes even their lives in order to chronicle some of the world’s most noteworthy events. 2020, perhaps one of the most tumultuous years to date, has required tireless dedication from journalists who sought to report on racial unrest and political injustice. As a result, in 2020, a record number of journalists were arrested and faced inhumane treatment and conditions while doing their jobs.
According to the U.S Press Freedom Tracker, which keeps a detailed account of journalists’ run-ins with law enforcement, at least 117 journalists have been detained or arrested while on the job this year. This number represents a staggering 1,200% increase from only nine journalist arrests the previous year. More specifically, a record number of journalists faced unpleasant run-ins with law enforcement and intense conditions when covering protests in Minneapolis earlier this year.
On May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, George Floyd, a 45 year-old black man was brutally murdered at the hands of a white police officer while being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Videos taken by witnesses and security cameras chronicled the excruciating murder of George Floyd and were shortly released for all of America to see.
Following the release of this footage, our nation, infuriated by this particular racial injustice along with years of institutionalized racism within our police system, entered a state of total unrest and erupted into protest—both peaceful and violent.
During these protests, people demanded change all across the country, especially in Minneapolis where the tragic murder of George Floyd occured. Journalists put themselves front and center in order to capture footage and to chronicle this important time in history.
Ed Ou, a Canadian journalist of 15 years, has covered protest movements all over the world. He put himself in harm’s way in order to capture the power of the George Floyd protests, saying that it is his duty as a journalist to be present and bear witness to this historical moment despite the physical risk and overbearing government intervention.
“Journalists try to stay as much out of the story as possible, but in this case, our role as journalists is to reveal truths and bear witness, no matter how uncomfortable they are,” said Ou. “When governments are actively trying to silence journalists from doing that, what they are doing is they are effectively silencing the voice of every citizen and every protester,” Ou added.
Despite peacefully trying to chronicle the protests, Ou, along with several other journalists, faced inhumane treatment by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers fired rubber bullets and concussion grenades at journalists, sprayed them with teargas and pepper spray, and even subjected them to beatings.
“The attacks on the press here feels targeted in a way that I have never really seen before in the U.S—like when I was pepper sprayed and tear gassed and beaten and had a concussion grenade explode in my face covering a protest,” added Ou.
Another journalist covering the George Floyd protests was photographer Carolyn Cole of the L.A Times who said she was familiar with the dangers of these situations but still did not expect herself and her colleagues to be so brutally attacked by Minneapolis law enforcement.
“I’ve been covering conflict both nationally and internationally for many years, so I know the dangers involved in these situations, especially when you get between a riot, police, and protestors, but I wasn’t expecting them to attack us directly,” said Cole. “Molly (a colleague) was hit twice with rubber bullets. Another photographer had a bloody face,” Cole added.
Not only did Cole witness her colleagues get attacked, but she herself suffered a significant injury to her eye at the hands of law enforcement brutality.
“I’m very fortunate that this is the first time in 25 years at the L.A Times that I’ve been injured. My left cornea has been damaged by the pepper spray, but I’m hoping it will heal quickly so I can get back to work,” said Cole.
While the George Floyd protests and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement were huge events that called for journalists and ended up putting them in danger at the hands of law enforcement, another huge ordeal for journalists was the attempted coup on the U.S Capitol building that occurred after the election of President Joe Biden.
On January 6th, 2021, a mob consisting of thousands of angry Trump supporters carried out an insurrection against the United States Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn his defeat in the 2020 Presidential election. The rioters were successful in breaching the police perimeters and storming the building, vandalizing and looting the Capitol for several hours. The attack was responsible for the evacuation and lockdown of the Capitol, and even took five lives.
While in previous protests journalists have faced inhumane treatment from law enforcement, in this instance, the abuse on journalists came directly from the protestors themselves. Journalists were heckled, subject to profanities and even put in physical harm. One of the protestors even carved “Murder the Media” into one of the doors of the Capitol.
News correspondents reported that they felt they did not have adequate protection from police as protestors targeted them. Chip Reid, a correspondent from CBS News, was particularly concerned about the lack of police protection for journalists covering the chaos outside of the Capitol and was rattled by a statement from one of the protestors.
“There were no police around us, we were on our own, in fact, I remember one of the protestors standing next to me said, ‘The police don’t care about you guys. They’re only protecting the senators. You’re on your own, buddy,” Reid said. “They were absolutely ferociously angry at the media. It was a scary moment,” he added.
In response to the events that occurred in Washington D.C, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned the attacks on the media and issued a statement calling for journalists and news organizations to take precautions.
“Journalists and news crews covering these events, which are a paramount of public interest, must be able to do so freely and safely, with the support and protection of law enforcement,” Simon said.
“Intimidation and vandalism have already been carried out by violent protestors and there is a real possibility of escalating attacks on the media. We urge journalists and news organizations to take every precaution,” he added.
image from dw.com