Public media reporters arrested, face attacks from police while covering protests

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Public media journalists are sharing details of incidents from the weekend’s protests against police violence in which officers attacked them with pepper spray, rubber bullets and other aggressive measures. 

Roberto Roldan, a reporter for VPM in Richmond, Va., tweeted Sunday that an officer sprayed pepper spray in his face and shoved him to the ground. Roldan said he had showed the officer his badge and yelled “I am with the press.”

“There is simply no justification for the police to harm working journalists,” said VPM CEO Jayme Swain in a statement Sunday. Swain added that the station is taking steps to protect employees.

KPCC and LAist education correspondent Adolfo Guzman-Lopez tweeted pictures of his welted, bloody throat. 

According to a report by KPCC Senior Editor Mike Kessler, Guzman-Lopez had just finished interviewing a protester Sunday when, at approximately 6:30 p.m., a rubber bullet fired by Long Beach police officers hit his throat. “The rubber bullet hit stings like a mf, and is starting to hurt, talked to doctor friends said if not having trouble breathing then ok. Going home,” he tweeted.

American Public Media reporter Madeleine Baran tweeted Saturday that an officer pointed a weapon at her and a colleague’s head. “I yelled that I’m a journalist. He did not lower his weapon, so we ran. Calling it a night,” she said. 

Baran had previously tweeted a photo of equipment she was taking into the field, including a mask, gloves and hand sanitizer to protect against the coronavirus.

NiemanLab, citing a lengthy thread compiled by Bellingcat reporter Nick Walters and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, reported that police have attacked around 100 journalists so far.

The dangers reporters face while covering protests are not new. But in the last few years, journalists have increasingly documented their experiences on social media. 

Cerise Castle, a producer for KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., said Los Angeles Police Department officers shot rubber bullets at her, even though she was holding her press badge above her head.

Reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent of WHYY in Philadelphia said he was detained and issued a code violation notice for failure to disperse after identifying himself to police, according to a station news report. Wolfman-Arent said police confiscated his recorder and boom microphone but returned them following his release.

“They claim at some point a dispersal warning was given,” he said of police. “I did not hear a dispersal warning. … In fairness, I was wearing my headphones, so it’s possible that that noise was muffled for me.”

Kimberly Paynter, a WHYY photographer on the scene, told WHYY that she did not hear a dispersal warning either.

Wolfman-Arent’s arrest after he clearly identified himself as a journalist was “completely unacceptable,” said Sandra Clark, WHYY’s VP of news and civic dialogue.

“We have a duty to serve the public and that means seeking truth and accountability, and representing diverse perspectives and experiences,” she said. “We aren’t going anywhere.”

Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a Philadelphia police spokesman, said in an email statement Monday to WHYY that the department was aware of the allegations and had launched an internal affairs investigation. “Because the investigation is active, and also because we are in the early stages of information gathering, we are unable to comment further at this point,” he said.

Hugo Balta, WTTW news director and EP of Chicago Tonight, told Current in a statement that the station advised reporters covering the city’s protests to continue practicing social distancing to protect themselves against the coronavirus. 

“Additionally, journalists were instructed to identify themselves as members of the press with proper identification and adhere to the instructions of law enforcement on the scene,” Balta said. “WTTW News will continue to diligently provide fair and accurate coverage of the unfolding events in order to keep the public informed, while protecting journalists from the risks.”

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