Journalist questioned by police

Watchdog Q&A

Published — June 19, 2020

Q&A: Sarah Matthews on why journalists need to be protected while covering protests

Associated Press videojournalist Robert Bumsted reminds a police officer that the press are considered “essential workers" and are allowed to be on the streets despite a curfew, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in New York during a police protest. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Introduction

Each week, we feature journalists who have written powerful stories — but, this time, we’re shaking things up a bit. We spoke to Sarah Matthews, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), about the unlawful treatment of journalists during their coverage of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd. From May 26 to June 8 alone, RCFP tracked over 56 arrests and nearly 300 attacks, the majority of which occurred at the hands of law enforcement. It’s been a busy few weeks for the organization, as they provide resources for those covering protests, including a tip sheet and a legal hotline, and help reporters who’ve been wrongfully arrested or attacked.

Describe some experiences of those who’ve been covering these protests. How has coverage of and treatment toward reporters during these protests been? 

During recent protests, we have seen an unprecedented number of attacks and arrests of journalists by law enforcement. For the entire year of 2019, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker recorded 152 press freedom incidents. Just since May 25, when a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, the tracker has recorded almost 400 incidents, and the number keeps growing.   

Police in Minneapolis arrested a CNN crew on camera after they calmly and repeatedly identified themselves as journalists and offered to comply with any police request to move. Numerous journalists were also arrested, pepper sprayed, beaten and shot with rubber bullets after identifying themselves as journalists, including a Reuters news crew and Los Angeles Times journalists. Linda Tirado, a freelance photojournalist, lost an eye to a rubber bullet as she was clearly in the act of photographing police. We’ve seen law enforcement target journalists in other cities across the country. See here for the latest.

Protests have consistently been the most dangerous place for journalists in recent years. But we have not seen law enforcement target journalists so frequently and flagrantly before, simply for doing their jobs.

What are you hoping that people take away from the coverage you’re seeing and the reporters you’re protecting?

I’m hoping people see the truth — that police are brutally attacking and arresting journalists simply for doing their jobs. These attacks and arrests violate the First Amendment and are an affront to the American public who rely on the press to keep them informed.   

Takeaway: Journalists hold people accountable — and they shouldn’t be targeted for doing their job.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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