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Some Police Attack Journalists During Demonstrations: Why are They Targets?

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Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, demonstrations against police violence have traversed the nation.

Yet, during these demonstrations, there have been 383 press freedom incidents including some 173 assaults on journalists 78 physical attacks (50 by police) —49 tear gassings —27 pepper sprayings —89 rubber bullet / projectiles injuries and 48 equipment/newsroom damage cases, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

There also have been 56 arrests of credentialed reporters by police. One CNN reporter was arrested on live television to be released shortly thereafter as the Governor of Minnesota apologized for the police action.

Dr. Michael Bugeja, Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Iowa State University, says that this much targeting of journalists is “unprecedented.”

He tells WOUB’s Spectrum Podcast that he feels some police are reacting to a new level of accountability brought on by the use of cellphones and technology. Cellphone videos captured by reporters and citizen journalists have documented police abuses against African-Americans and other people of color.

Since everyone can be a broadcaster through social media, police are subject to a new, higher level of accountability, Dr. Bugeja says. As a result, journalists have been targeted during disturbances for just exercising their First Amendment rights.

The police abuses against reporters have been so bad that the ACLU in Minnesota has filed a federal class action lawsuit under the federal Civil Rights Act claiming that the police were depriving journalists of their First Amendment freedoms, that journalists and their property were being seized without warrants in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that journalists were being denied their constitutional rights and freedoms without due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Dr. Bugeja believes that reporters covering any large demonstration should hand a copy of the federal Civil Rights Act to police at the scene as a “paper trail” of notice not to abridge constitutional freedoms.

He is extremely concerned about the safety of journalists and the escalating denial of their rights. He notes that journalists are trained to report and report accurately where too often the general public relies on news from social media which often is not accurate and can easily be manipulated to distort reality.

Therefore, he says, mainstream journalists need protection, especially against the police.

Dr. Bugeja has a specialty in media ethics and technology. He is author of 24 books across genres. His latest is Media Ethics: Across Platforms, published by Routhledge, Taylor and Francis in 2019.