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Police Treatment Of Press At Ferguson Protests Spurs Request for DOJ Investigation

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

A report by the PEN America Centersays an “aggressive, militarized response to largely peaceful public protests” fueled “the most serious human rights violations in Ferguson” against both protesters and the press. 

In its report, the New York-based advocacy organization for reporters and other writers says it has documented 52 alleged violations of press freedoms at the Ferguson protests in mid-August.  The report goes on to say that “those responsible for human rights abuses should be held accountable.”

The organization recommended that the Justice Department issue new guidelines for “U.S. police departments on respect for media freedoms during public demonstrations.”  Those guidelines, it said, should serve as the basis for new policies, training and disciplinary proceedings for violations.

Dena Iverson, spokesperson for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, declined to comment on the report in a telephone conversation saying that the department's email system was down and that the department had not yet received the report -- which at the time was already posted on the PEN America Center website. 

St. Louis County Police Sgt. Brian Schellman says that several weeks ago, as many as 400 police officers took part in a four-hour training program on civil disturbance, riot training and freedoms of the media and protesters. 

“Officers were issued cards that went over the First, Fourth and 14th amendments” to the U.S. Constitution and “talked about the rights of the press and obviously the rights of all protesters,” said Schellman, who added that the training was conducted by local officials along with representatives of the Department of Justice. 

The PEN report details several instances in which police interfered with journalists covering protests following the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. They included:

  • tear gas lobbed at an Al Jazeera TV crew,
  • lights flashed into the lenses of reporters’ cameras
  • the arrest of journalists, including that of "citizen journalist" Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post.

The report also cited policies that made it more difficult for journalists to do their jobs, especially the curfews and confining reporters to holding areas far from the events they were trying to cover.
The organization says its report is not a “blanket condemnation of the law enforcement officers who policed the Ferguson protest.”

Several journalists interviewed for PEN praised Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol for “his willingness to engage in dialogue, answer questions and interact with protesters and the press.”  Some journalists said in the report that “it was sometimes difficult to distinguish members of the press from protesters in Ferguson, and that this may have made it more difficult for police officers to act in a way that respected press freedoms.”

Schellman echoed that point, saying it was at times a challenge to distinguish members of the media. “There were many people claiming to be media, it was almost like anybody who had a cell phone told us that they were media so how do you differentiate who is media and who is not. It’s very difficult.” 

Discussions are under ay for a possible joint media credentialing system.  “We’re talking about possibly doing that through the department as a whole, but that decision is going to be made at a higher level than myself, but we’re going to let everybody know as soon as that decision is made,”  he said.