Many of these incidents — including one in which journalists were forcibly stopped and made to lay on the ground, before having their identification photographed, and in some cases being detained for several hours — occurred after a district court judge issued a temporary restraining order on Friday barring police from harassing journalists, to include threatening arrest and seizing camera or recording equipment.
On Saturday, Leita Walker, a lawyer representing more than 20 news media organizations — including the Associated Press, BuzzFeed, Minnesota Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Committee to Protect Journalists — sent a letter to the governor of Minnesota and the heads of the state’s law enforcement organizations asking for them to put a stop to the harassment and abuse, citing the restraining order passed a day earlier.
In her letter, Walker noted that several of the incidents she refers to took place Friday night, after the restraining order was already in effect. “Law enforcement officers have engaged in widespread intimidation, violence, and other misconduct directed at journalists that have interfered with their ability to report on matters of intense public interest and concern,” she wrote.
Walker also pointed out that having law enforcement officers collect the identifying information of journalists who are engaged in journalism was found to be a First Amendment violation in a recent federal district court case. Minnesota State Patrol said in a statement that “troopers checked and photographed journalists and their credentials and driver’s licenses at the scene in order to expedite the identification process.” While some journalists were “detained and released during enforcement actions after providing credentials, no journalists have been arrested,” the police statement said.
When asked about the incidents during an interview on Sunday, Governor Tim Walz said that he was shocked by the allegations, and that “apologies are not enough; it just cannot happen.” In a tweet, Walz wrote that he had “directed our law enforcement partners to make changes that will help ensure journalists do not face barriers to doing their jobs”; in a TV interview, he said, “These are volatile situations and that’s not an excuse. It’s an understanding that we need to continue to get better.”
Whether or not that understanding is shared is another matter: What has been happening in Minnesota is more evidence that where there are protests against police killings of Black men, there is also likely to be harassment and physical violence directed against journalists by those same police forces. As Cierra Hinton of Scalawag noted on Twitter, this doesn’t mean attacks against journalists are somehow more important or more objectionable than attacks on protesters. It’s also worth noting that even court orders specifically forbidding such behavior don’t seem to work.
Here’s more on unrest and journalism:
- Brutal: Police allegedly trying to maintain order were “especially brutal toward journalists seeking to exercise their 1st Amendment rights and document what police were doing in our name,” according to Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch. “Even after a federal judge in Minnesota took the extraordinary step of issuing a temporary restraining order telling state troopers (but, weirdly, not local cops or the National Guard) to stop arresting or dispersing working reporters and photographers, officers in Brooklyn Center have been wilding against the media — epitomized by the pepper-spraying of a French journalist in a yellow ‘PRESS’ vest and her heavily equipped photographer.”
- Targeted: Law enforcement have long targeted journalists covering protests, as Jon Allsop pointed out for CJR in a report last year. In 2014, for example, at least eleven reporters were arrested while covering unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, while others faced threats and attacks. Often, as Jeremy Scahill, founder of The Intercept, noted, reporters at such protests are “unfamous journalists from non-corporate outlets,” so their mistreatment goes unremarked upon by most of the mainstream press. Many of the journalists targeted during the protests over the killing of George Floyd last year reported that police attacked them even though they were prominently waving their press badges.
- Not just journalists: Amanda Darrach wrote in CJR about how journalists need to look beyond what is happening to them as a group, and put it in context of a broader pattern of police violence against protesters, many of whom are Black. “The presumption is that we’re being targeted, because being targeted means we’re important,” she wrote. “We must stop focusing on ourselves. The journalist breathlessly detailing their own victimhood has become a sub-genre of a story that is, and should be, about the killing of George Floyd. We are not worthier victims just because the fourth estate works to uphold democracy. It’s our job. And we’d do well to focus on those who don’t have the opportunity to write 800 words about their own importance afterward.”
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.