In turnabout, global leaders urge US to protect reporters amid unrest

Megan Specia, The New York Times

Posted at Jun 05 2020 11:53 PM

Police officers are seen amid tear gas as protesters continue to rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, om May 30, 2020. Leah Millis, Reuters/File Photo

A police officer near the White House slams a riot shield into a cameraman’s chest. The authorities in Minneapolis fire projectiles at a TV crew, prompting a reporter to cry, “stop shooting at us.” A black journalist is encircled by riot police and arrested live on the air.

Attacks against journalists covering demonstrations against racial injustice have prompted foreign governments to call on U.S. authorities to respect press freedom and protect reporters, both local and foreign.

For the United States, it is a role reversal.

The attacks bear a striking resemblance to police brutality against journalists around the world over the years — ones that have been swiftly condemned by officials in the United States, where press freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

But this week, it was the governments of Germany, Australia and Turkey condemning attacks on reporters in America.

Experts say the recent attacks reflect a growing pattern of anti-press violence in the United States. Pauline Adès-Mével, a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders, said the frequency and the intensity of the U.S. attacks are “shocking.”

“It’s a democracy, and it’s also a symbol,” she said of the United States, adding that it is “no longer a champion of press freedom, either at home or abroad.”

Turkey, which has a long record of anti-press actions, appeared to seize on the erosion of America’s reputation in making its criticism.

Since protests began May 26, more than 250 abridgments of press freedom have been reported across the United States by journalists covering the demonstrations, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group documenting the problem.

A number of episodes have involved foreign reporters, prompting governments abroad to urge U.S. authorities to uphold international norms that ensure members of the press can report without impediment.

Heiko Maas, the foreign minister of Germany, said he would contact U.S. authorities over the treatment of a German television news crew by law enforcement officers Friday night in Minneapolis.

“Democratic states abiding by the rule of law must demonstrate the highest standards in protecting the freedom of the press,” Maas told reporters Tuesday.

“Any use of violence in this context must not only be criticized, but must also be consistently investigated and resolved so that journalists are effectively protected in their work,” he added.

In a video posted by public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the officers threaten to arrest a team of German journalists. In another scene, shots can be heard at the reporter’s back, and he ducks to shield himself. Stefan Simons, the reporter, is seen wearing a vest that clearly identifies him as a member of the press.

“This is press, guys, stop shooting at us,” Simons yells at police officers, standing some distance away. “We are in the middle of a live shot.”

Deutsche Welle, in a later report, said the police shot projectiles at the team, and Simons described rubber bullets being shot.

Two journalists working for an Australian news outlets were subjected to attacks by the police Monday evening as officers cleared peaceful demonstrators from an area near the White House to allow a photo-op for President Donald Trump.

Amelia Brace, a reporter, and Tim Myers, a cameraman, were reporting for Australia’s 7News television station, when they were charged by the police. The incident played out live on Australian television.

The episode was also recorded by another television camera and shows the pair sheltering behind a fence column before an officer drives his riot shield into Myers’ torso.

Brace is then clubbed on the back with a baton. Both were struck by rubber bullets, she said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia asked the Australian ambassador to the United States, Arthur Sinodinos, to look into what happened, a spokeswoman for the Australian Embassy in Washington said.

Two police officers with the U.S. Park Police “have been assigned to administrative duties, while an investigation takes place regarding the incident with the Australian press,” Gregory T. Monahan, the acting chief of the service, said in a statement.

Adès-Mével, of Reporters without Borders, said the violence against journalists in the United States is alarming at many levels.

“I think for a long time, the United States had been kind of a model” for press freedom, Adès-Mével said. But Trump’s anti-press statements and demonization of journalists — he has called reporters the “enemy of the people” — has created a climate that allows the authorities to act with impunity, she said.

“We have warned in the past about Trump’s rhetoric, about these attacks on the press being so dangerous for the future,” she said. “And now what we are seeing is that his rhetoric has had some very heavy consequences.”

Those consequences ripple out across the world because the United States has traditionally been seen as a protector of free speech and the press. When security forces attacked reporters in Egypt during widespread protests in 2011, officials in the State Department condemned the actions as deliberate attempts by the government to stifle information.

Similarly, the United States has long been critical of Turkey’s crackdown on its press. Dozens of news outlets have been shut down by the Turkish authorities, and hundreds of reporters have been arrested and attacked by security forces.

Turkey is considered by press freedom groups to have one of the worst records in the world. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 47 journalists are in jail in Turkey.

But after Lionel Donovan, a reporter for Turkish public broadcaster TRT, was hit by a nonlethal round during protests in Minneapolis last week, Turkey used the opportunity to assail the United States for its treatment of journalists.

Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish president’s communication director, condemned the episode in a post on Twitter, saying he would “raise the issue” with U.S. authorities “without delay.”

“Press freedom is the backbone of democracy,” Altun said.

His comments caused a swift backlash from some Turks, who accused him of hypocrisy and reminded him of attacks on the press at home.

Mehmet Kurt posted on Twitter: “If anyone asks you: ‘How many journalists do you have in jails now in Turkey?’ Or ‘How many newspaper/TV did you close in the last four years?’ Do you have an answer?”

When a black CNN reporter, Oscar Jimenez, was arrested in Minneapolis live on the air along with members of his crew, some Turks drew comparisons to the detention of Ivan Watson, a CNN reporter, following widespread protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2014.

“Arresting CNN reporter live on TV. Everywhere is Minneapolis, everywhere is Taksim,” read one post in Turkish Twitter with a screenshot of Watson’s arrest.

Attacks on journalists are on the rise in cities around the world, particularly during mass demonstrations, experts say.

“It’s worrying, because it creates a climate of impunity that gives the feeling that there is no limit anymore,” Adès-Mével said. “And we are worried of course about the consequences.”