Media Groups Condemn Arrest of Reporters During Ferguson Protests

As locals and police continued to clash in a small St. Louis suburb this week, two journalists on the scene were taken into police custody for reasons that remain unclear. Media associations objected loudly.

The streets of Ferguson, Missouri, have been marred by violence, looting, and protests every night this week in the wake of the Saturday shooting death of an unarmed African American teenager by an unidentified St. Louis County police officer.

The images coming out of the area show police in riot gear and armored vehicles, throwing tear gas and shooting bean bags and rubber bullets into crowds of people. Those tactics have sparked outrage throughout the country and have helped shed light on a history of racial conflict in the community.

The last photo taken by Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly before he was arrested Wednesday. (via Reilly’s Twitter page)

Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.

That anger only increased on Wednesday night when police, who were attempting to shut down a McDonald’s where members of the media covering the events were stationed, arrested two journalists with little explanation. The reporters—Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post—explained in their accounts of what happened that they were later released with no charges filed, no police report forthcoming, and no names of officers provided.

“Wesley has briefed us on what occurred, and there was absolutely no justification for his arrest,” Washington Post Executive Editor Martin D. Brown said in a statement on the incident. “He was illegally instructed to stop taking video of officers. Then he followed officers’ instructions to leave a McDonald’s—and after contradictory instructions on how to exit, he was slammed against a soda machine and then handcuffed. That behavior was wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.”

The National Association of Black Journalists, of which Lowery is a member, and the Radio Television Digital News Association also condemned the arrests.

“Journalists have a constitutionally protected right to work without government interference,” NABJ President Bob Butler said in a statement.

Mike Cavender, executive director of RTDNA, had called on the local police to work with and protect journalists covering the story.

“This is outrageous conduct on the part of the officers,” he wrote in a letter to City of Ferguson Chief of Police Thomas Jackson. “Frankly, they should know better. The journalistic community is demanding that you, other command officials, and all law enforcement officers involved in this continuing situation respect the rights of reporters and others journalists to provide news coverage in Ferguson so long as they operate legally—which these two reporters were doing.”

The arrests of Lowery and Reilly were not the only example of police interfering with the media. Video, shown above, was captured of an Al Jazeera America television crew getting hit with tear gas and officers disassembling their equipment after the crew ran away. A journalist shooting video for local station KSDK-TV saw his equipment get hit by a bean bag fired in his direction. And a photographer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was questioned by police as he was covering the looting of a gas station.

At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, President Obama touched on the arrests while addressing the situation in Ferguson.

“Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground,” he said. “We all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particular those of us in positions of authority.”

The police officer who arrested a Washington Post journalist, shortly before the journalist's arrest. (Washington Post screenshot)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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