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'Trump's press demonisation pays off': Attacks on US journalists soar amid George Floyd protests

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By Pauline Bock  & Rafael Cerrada
Thousands of members of the community gathered to mourn the death of George Floyd during a march across downtown Houston, Texas on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.
Thousands of members of the community gathered to mourn the death of George Floyd during a march across downtown Houston, Texas on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.   -   Copyright  MARK FELIX/AFP

Press freedom groups have raised the alarm after more than 200 attacks and arrests on journalists since the death of George Floyd.

Floyd's death, which came after a police officer was filmed with his knee on the 46-year-old's neck, sparked protests across the US.

It is during these protests that reporters have allegedly been targeted, including 30 arrests and 143 assaults, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)'s press freedom tracker app. There were a further 35 reports of damage to equipment or newsrooms. 

Of the 143 alleged assaults, 49 were physical attacks on journalists (31 by police), 50 injuries by projectile and rubber bullets, 35 instances of tear gas use and 21 of pepper spray.

"We are horrified by the continued recourse to harsh and sometimes violent police actions against journalists who do their jobs," CPJ's programme director Carlos Martínez de la Serna said.

"They are direct violations of press freedom, a fundamental constitutional value of the United States. We call on state and local officials to explicitly exempt the media from the curfew regulations so that journalists can freely report."

The CPJ has called on US authorities and police to stop attacking journalists and provided several examples of journalists attacked or targeted by police weapons despite being clearly identified as press.

These included a Minnesota public radio journalist who was pointed at with a gun by the police despite identifying herself, and two photojournalists in Las Vegas who were arrested while working and charged with the misdemeanour of "failure to disperse".

"Journalists have been shot at with rubber bullets, pepper-sprayed and assaulted on air while covering the US protests," the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) said in a statement condemning the attacks.

“Journalists must be free to report safely on the demonstrations – and not be threatened with violence,” said Joyce Barnathan, president of ICFJ. “It’s vital reporters keep the public informed with the facts at this critical moment.”

According to the non-profit Freedom of the Press, in just a few hours on June 2, seven journalists were arrested while covering the protests.

Some of these attacks were filmed, either by protesters or by the press themselves. Despite clearly identifying themselves as press, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested by the Minnesota police on Friday while reporting live on TV.

They were only released after the state governor personally intervened. The video of their arrest widely circulated on social media.

In a statement, CNN denounced "a clear violation of their First Amendment rights".

In Louisville on Saturday, reporter Christopher Bishop of L1C4 news channel was able to record how police officers shot his team with a tear gas rifle. No one was seriously injured.

An article by The New York Times quoted reporters and news photographers describing being ill-treated, arrested and shot with rubber bullets while covering protests across the country. One said: "I've never really seen anything like this."

Protesters have attacked the press, too

Journalists were also attacked by protesters. In Atlanta on Friday, CNN headquarters was one of the first places protesters rallied to march and express their anger, tagging the channel's logo at the building's entrance.

Mike Stewart / Copyright 2020 The Associated Press
Protesters outside CNN headquarters in Atlanta on Friday 29Mike Stewart / Copyright 2020 The Associated Press

In a statement, Reporters Without Borders condemned the attacks by protesters on journalists and said they were "fuelled by years of diabolisation of the press by Donald Trump".

"President Trump's demonisation of the media has paid off, with police and protesters targeting journalists with violence and arrests despite being clearly identified," said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"It has long been obvious that this demonisation would lead to physical violence. RSF has warned of the consequences of this blatant hostility to the media, and we are now witnessing an unprecedented outbreak of violence against journalists in the US."

"RSF calls on all US authorities to ensure the full protection of journalists and to honour the country's founding principles regarding respect for press freedom," Deloire added.

Donald Trump once again criticised the press on Twitter on Sunday, writing that the media helps "foster hatred and lawlessness" and calling them "fake news".

Investigation in Australia

After two Australia journalists covering a protest outside the White House in Washington on Monday were attacked by US police dispersing the crowds, the Australian prime minister Scott has called for an investigation.

The Australian Embassy in Washington said that Morrison had asked the Australian ambassador to the US to investigate the police treatment of the two journalists working for the Australian Channel 7 news channel.

"I understand that Channel 7 will make a formal police complaint asking to have the matter investigated," the Australian ambassador said in a statement. "We are in discussion with the State Department and they have offered assistance to identify where the complaint should be targeted."