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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