St. Louis SPJ condemns attacks on the press in Ferguson

An Al Jazeera television crew, covering demonstrators protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, scrambles for cover as police fire tear gas into the news team’s reporting position on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Scott Olson)

As confrontations between protesters and police continue in Ferguson, the St. Louis Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists condemns all attacks on the press, including the arrest of two reporters Wednesday.

According to multiple news stories, St. Louis County Police detained Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly while the two journalists were working inside a McDonalds in Ferguson. Both claimed to have been physically roughed up in the process. No charges were made and the reporters were released.

A Huffington Post story compiled reports from multiple journalists who have been threatened or not allowed to do their jobs. Local and national reporters have reported instances of illegal orders by police to stop reporting and leave areas already outside the perimeter set up by police. There have also been reports of journalists having assault rifles pointed directly at them while doing their jobs in approved areas.

In some of those instances, the authorities cited concerns for the safety for the reporters, yet there was nothing happening in the area except police moving aggressively on reporters. Raw footage has been distributed since last night of an Al Jazeera team by their vehicle and outside the police perimeter being targeted by police. Tear gas canisters were dropped at their feet. After they left their equipment to get away from the fumes, officers then approached the reporters’ equipment, impeded recording and partially dismantled it.

“Police shooting rubber bullets at crowd, including reporters and photographers,” New York Times Midwest correspondent Julie Bosman said in on Twitter.

In light of these events, the SPJ chapter that serves Ferguson urges local officials and police to respect and protect journalists working in the field and encourages them to strongly work to uphold and protect the First Amendment and the public’s right to know the truth of the incidents in Ferguson.

SPJ St. Louis Pro Chapter President Tammy Merrett has issued this statement:

As the president of the St Louis Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I must speak to St. Louis law enforcement.

Those officers who are roughing up reporters, throwing tear gas canisters at their feet or pointing weapons at reporters sitting in their vehicles working and out of the way are NOT helping the situation in Ferguson or the St. Louis metro area. Someone who can instruct your departments on the supposed transparency the Ferguson chief of police called for MUST be put into place. If you don’t have anything to hide, don’t act like it. You’re making yourselves look terrible in a situation that is questionable to say the least to begin with.

This is separate from officers who are putting themselves in peril and are valiantly doing their jobs well. This is also a separate issue from the reasons behind the protests in Ferguson and the metro area.

We’ve seen this breaking down of the First Amendment raise its head time and again in this country. Journalism is the ONLY profession protected by name in the Constitution because it is needed to help uphold democracy. Fail to respect it at your own peril.

Some may accuse the media of sensationalism because they are doing their jobs and shedding light on many aspects of this terrible situation, but law enforcement officials who are acting like jack-booted thugs toward ANYONE are giving all law enforcement and this community a black eye on a national level that will linger for years to come. Those officers are writing the story themselves.

Think before you act.

(Click here to read the statement released by the national SPJ headquarters.)

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Former SPJ student officer reporting in Iraq launches Kickstarter campaign to purchase protective gear

Sheren Khalel celebrates her 25th birthday in Erbil, Iraq.

Sheren Khalel celebrates her 25th birthday in Erbil, Iraq. (Photos by Sheren Khalel)

By Carlos Restreppo
St. Louis Pro Chapter board member

Tuesday was Sheren Khalel’s 25th birthday, but this Webster University graduate is not asking for gifts or a cake.

Khalel, a former officer of her SPJ student chapter in St. Louis, is asking her friends and family for support to help her stay alive, or at least unharmed, as she covers the ongoing conflict involving ISIS militants in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.

“ISIS forces are close to our border, about 25 miles away,” Khalel said in an interview with STLSPJ. “It’s really tense right now. In the city center, there are police and Peshmerga (Kurdish army) out on every corner. There are trucks with guns situated on them and police cars are everywhere right now trying to assure people that the city is safe.”

But not safe enough.

Khalel, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in global journalism, is working with two other colleagues as they freelance their way through the Middle East. The group recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $3,000 for the purchase of protective equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets.

The campaign, Keep Us Alive Covering Conflict in the Middle East, sheds a light on the dangers freelance war correspondents face when they “go at it alone.”

“With the ever changing political landscape of Iraq at the moment, we realize how important it is to have up to date equipment, particularly tools that could save our lives,” Khalel wrote on the Kickstarter page. “As we are young, struggling freelancers, we look to you, our friends and family, to give us a boost.”

‘We are responsible for ourselves’

Scottish photojournalist Matthew Vickery, who is part of Khalel’s freelancing entourage, said volatile areas are often the places with the most important human stories, but the stories remain largely untold due to the dangers involved in covering them.

“If there’s any point to being in a conflict zone at all we should be striving to find people and stories who are in such a position, but in order to do that you have to be smart and do everything in your power to keep yourself safe while on the ground,” Vickery said. “As freelancers, that is much more difficult because we don’t have the support of a big company to help keep us safe. We are responsible for ourselves.”

According to New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 2014 has already seen three reporters murdered in Iraq, one of the most violent countries in the world to practice journalism.

“With not a single conviction in the 100 journalist murders of the past decade, Iraq remains the worst country in the world for impunity,” the CPJ says.

One of the murdered reporters was a freelance journalist killed the same day as Khalel’s birthday, in the same Kurdish city where Khalil is currently working, the CPJ reported.

That is not deterring Khalil, who was raised in St. Louis.

“When it comes down to it, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Khalel, whose stories have appeared in the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor, and Vice News, among others. “There are a lot of careers I could have picked that have the potential to make an impact in the world and don’t come with a need for a bulletproof vest. For all the risks I may take in my career, it’s completely worth it knowing that I could be telling a story that would otherwise go untold.”

From left, freelance journalists Sheren Khalel, Matthew Vickery and Abed al-Qaisi fly over Syria on their way to Iraq.

Looming deadline

Khalel and her two colleagues have until Sept. 2 to to meet their funding goal. As of Tuesday, Aug. 11, the campaign has raised $1,786. If their goal is not met, all the money will be returned to the contributors.

Khalel said she hopes those who support independent journalists around the world will fund their effort.

“Freelancers are increasingly being utilized to cover conflict zones, but without the support and protection from the companies that are so willing to take their reports,” Khalel said. “As young freelancers, we don’t yet make enough disposable income to completely cover the costs of necessary protective gear, but everyone has to start somewhere.”

Carlos Restrepo is public relations chairman of the St. Louis Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is a 2012 graduate of Webster University’s journalism program and a communications specialist for two homeless shelters.


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Learn how to use data and mapping tools to find news stories

Learn the basics about mining information online for stories and reports when Walker Moskop, data reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, demonstrates how he uses government data and mapping tools to find news, add depth to coverage, and create unique online content for

Moskop is the guest speaker Thursday at the Society of Professional Journalists’ monthly News at Noon presentation in the AT&T Room on the lower level of the Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Boulevard, on the north edge of Forest Park at DeBaliviere Avenue. He will describe how news reporters conduct analyses with such tools as Geospacial Information Systems (GIS) and open data via public sources.

The tips and tricks he has to share are valuable to anyone who works online, not just journalists.

News at Noon presentations are sponsored by the Missouri History Museum and by the St. Louis Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. You are invited to bring a sack lunch or buy one from Bixby’s Restaurant on the museum’s upper level.

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SPJ offers special screening of ‘Deadline in Disaster’

Deadline in DisasterThe St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists invites you to a special screening of “Deadline in Disaster,” a documentary about the role of reporters at The Joplin Globe shortly after a devastating tornado cut through the community May 22, 2011.

The free screening will take place at noon, Thursday, July 10, in the AT&T Room on the lower level of the Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Boulevard.

The documentary film, produced by Orr Street Productions and the Missouri Press Association, takes viewers behind the scenes of Joplin’s major publication and will speak of the hardships both the community and its newspaper endured following the disaster.

“High school graduation had just ended when The Joplin Globe turned its reporting coverage to the horror of the day that would define its community as one of strength and resolve in the weeks to follow,” the documentary’s website explains. “Despite one-third of the newspaper staff losing their homes and the death of their page designer, The Joplin Globe rolled the presses on the night of the storm one hour late.”

Viewers are invited to bring a brown bag lunch or order one from Bixby’s Restaurant upstairs.

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