Sometimes they are arrested and then set free almost immediately. Sometimes they are arrested and, before being released, are charged with unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct or lack of press credentials.
Journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street movement’s protests and marches are not only exposed to police brutality but also to a sort of judicial lottery when detained. The situation varies from state to state, according to local laws, but the freedom to report news and information is being violated almost everywhere, not only for professional journalists but also for bloggers and for activists who want to cover the protests themselves.
“Wherever it takes place, each tale has something in common,” Reporters Without Borders said. “In all the cases brought to our attention, the persons concerned said they had identified themselves as journalists to the police, but to no avail. The attitude of law-enforcement officers supports the theory that not only the movement itself but also coverage of Occupy Wall Street is being obstructed. Are they doing everything possible to suppress news in which the public is clearly very interested? If so, the First Amendment has become a dead letter.
“The other question is the very variable nature of the charges – sometimes maintained, sometimes dropped – that are brought against these people for ‘offences’ that are essentially identical. In the name of the constitutionally-enshrined right to receive and impart news and information, we call on the courts to dismiss all the charges against individuals who have been covering these demonstrations peacefully.”
Reporters Without Borders is aware of two such contrasting cases on 2 November, involving Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photographer Kristyna Wentz-Graff (photo) and freelance journalist and cartoonist Susie Cagle.
Wentz-Graff was released without charge after being arrested during a demonstration outside the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Cagle was held for a total of 14 hours in two different detention centres, and was charged with unlawful assembly, after being arrested in Oakland, California. She is due to appear in court in December.
During the previous week’s demonstrations in Oakland, police fired a rubber bullet at video-reporter Scott Campbell, 30, during a confrontation with protesters. Reported by the local press on 7 November, the incident has embarrassed the authorities, including the police, who have admitted to an “unprovoked and inappropriate use of force.”
When 11 members of the Occupy Orlando collective were arrested during a protest in Orlando, Florida, on 6 November, two of the collective’s media team were among those detained, depriving the movement of video coverage of the event.
John Meador of the Nashville Scene Reporter was arrested during a demonstration outside the state capitol in Nashville, Tennessee, on 30 October despite showing his press badge twice. He is now facing charges of “criminal trespass” and “public intoxication.”
The judicial fate of journalists who were arrested during the big initial Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York was equally varied. Detained for eight hours on 24 September because he had no press credential, John Farley of the magazine MetroFocus was acquitted on a charge of “disorderly conduct” on 2 November. But two journalists who were arrested on 1 October – New York Times stringer Natasha Lennard and Kristen Gwynne of the AlterNet website – were not so lucky.