‘Simply for doing their jobs’: International monitors condemn attacks on U.S. press freedoms

It’s come to this.

International monitors have condemned the repeated attacks on—and arrests of—journalists on American soil in recent days, recording an alarming spike in violence against the press in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the civil rights protests that have sprung up since.

As of Saturday, 68 such attacks had been recorded by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

The incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists in U.S. cities recall what human rights observers and peacekeepers often see in war zones or despotic regimes where the rule of law is shaky and press freedoms almost nonexistent. Twitter is full of accounts of reporters being shot by rubber bullets and pepper balls, exposed to tear gas, physically harassed, threatened, and having their vehicles and equipment vandalized or destroyed. “Simply for doing their jobs,” as RSF points out.

Press rights advocates see it as part of a worrying pattern of attacks on America’s free press during the Trump presidency. The United States is ranked No. 45 in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, one notch ahead of Papua New Guinea.

“President Trump’s demonization of the media for years has now come to fruition, with both the police and protesters targeting clearly identified journalists with violence and arrests,” said Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary general. 

“It has long been obvious that this demonization would lead to physical violence. RSF has warned about the consequences of this blatant hostility toward the media, and we are now witnessing an unprecedented outbreak of violence against journalists in the U.S. RSF calls on all U.S. authorities to ensure the full protection of journalists and honor the country’s founding principles in respecting press freedom,” Deloire added.

“Just crazy”

The open-source investigators at Bellingcat, meanwhile, have tallied more than 100 incidents of attacks on the press as of this morning. They started their investigation the day after a CNN crew, broadcasting live in Minneapolis, were placed under arrest while on air.

“Several of these instances are clearly journalists caught up between violent protesters and police,” says Bellingcat’s Nick Waters. “But in a significant number of cases, the journalists are clearly identifiable as members of the press.

“Quite frankly, I didn’t expect to see such numbers when I started to collect these incidents,” he continued. “I figured there would be a few examples of police activities against journalists. The number of instances, though, is just crazy. And how blatant it is, it’s just crazy as well.”

Waters is an expert in drones, chemical weapons, and disinformation. He often travels to newsrooms to train journalists. (I’ve taken one of his courses on open-source investigations, which is what Bellingcat is probably best known for.)

Its work often focuses on war zones such as Libya and Syria, and in places including Russia, Eastern Europe, and Venezuela where journalists are routinely jailed, intimidated, and sometimes killed.

Bellingcat’s work has formed the basis of all manner of criminal investigations. For example, a collective of open-source online investigators, many of whom work for and with Bellingcat, pieced together a series of summary executions in Libya carried out by Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli in 2016 and 2017.

The investigators painstakingly sifted through postings on Facebook and other social media platforms to piece together the crimes, showing al-Werfalli’s clear role in the killing of his 33 captives at the height of the bloody civil war in that country. Months later, the International Criminal Court used the evidence to issue an arrest warrant for al-Werfalli, the first time prosecutors relied so heavily on open-source social media posts to make their case for war crimes.

Live from Louisville

Bellingcat is using many of the same basic techniques to collect and chronicle evidence of violent acts against journalists in the U.S. who are covering the civil rights protests.

The one that surprised Waters the most? The Wave 3 News team, reporting from Louisville, Ky.

The reporter is clearly marked, wearing a yellow “press” cover, and giving a live stand-up report. At one point, she starts howling in pain. “I’m getting shot,” she screams as her studio colleagues frantically ask what’s going on. The camera then pans to a police officer in full riot gear. He aims his rifle and fires directly at the cameraman. The effect is as if the officer is firing a weapon into America’s living room. The officer doesn’t stop. More shots can be heard fired at the journalists.

The incident was all covered live.

A police spokesperson later released a statement saying the reporters, WAVE 3 News’ Kaitlin Rust and photojournalist James Dobson, had been following police instructions when the shooting incident occurred.

“Targeting the media is not our intention,” the police statement read. “There was a lot going on last night, and to be fair to both the officer and to Kaitlin, we need to take a deeper look at what happened and what prompted that action. So we have said that we will do that and if there needs to be discipline we will address it.”

Firing at the press while reporting is a tactic Bellingcat’s Waters says is standard practice in Venezuela during street protests. He’s also seen it done by the Israeli defense forces. “There’s no way you can mistake them for anyone other than journalists,” he says of the incident in Louisville.

“It’s very very surprising to see this level of attacks on journalists and the free press,” he adds.

Fortune is part of a collective of media organizations that co-publishes a monthly ranked list of the 10 most urgent press freedom cases. You can read last month’s list here.

Correction and update, June 3, 2020: This post has been updated to include reference to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which recorded 68 attacks against journalists as of Saturday, May 30.

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