Journalists covering a convulsing country being brutally and brazenly targeted by heavily militarized law enforcement seems like a scenario that should carry a Cairo dateline. Or another far-flung capital where police blatantly disregard human rights and media freedoms.
But the dateline is Minneapolis, as well as cities across the country where journalists have become targets while covering protests over George Floyd.
“We’re hearing from reporters who covered the Arab Spring that they haven’t been in this situation since then,” said Dr. Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Radsch, who lived in Lebanon and Egypt and covered an Arab Spring that was met with an oppressive winter, said of America: “The whole world is watching, and yet you still see these amazing acts of violence. In Egypt, [former President Hosni] Mubarak was in power for a quarter of a century and didn’t seem to care much about public opinion. That shouldn’t be the case in the United States, which is a functioning democracy.”
Well, at least on paper. On the pavement, CPJ has tracked more than 200 assaults on journalists, Radsch said.
Despite the dysfunction, there are still some functioning, even vital elements of our democracy, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court to obtain a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction “to stop law enforcement from attacking and targeting journalists, now and in the future; a declaration that police conduct violated the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments; and damages.”
The 42-page suit is replete with reports on attacks on journalists, including several from the Star Tribune, although none are plaintiffs. Listed as defendants are the city of Minneapolis, its police chief and police union president, the state Department of Public Safety commissioner, State Patrol chief, and “John Does 1-2.” The plaintiff is Jared Goyette, a Minnesota-based freelance journalist. Police, the suit alleges, shot Goyette in the face “with less-lethal ballistic ammunition” after he tried to report on an injured protester.
Goyette recovered and eventually returned to reporting. Linda Tirado did not. Tirado, a freelance journalist photographing the protest, was blinded in one eye after being shot by law enforcement. Both Goyette and Tirado — as well as nearly every other journalist listed in the lawsuit as having been subjected to “arrest, physical force, use of chemical agents, or threatening language and gestures” (or several of these) — clearly identified themselves as members of the news media.
Some had cameras, including Tom Aviles, a WCCO videographer who the suit alleges was first thrown to the ground by a Minnesota State Patrol trooper (earlier, “police had shot Aviles with a less-lethal projectile,” the ACLU suit said). Or Omar Jimenez, a CNN reporter who was arrested by a State Patrol trooper while on-air.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz apologized to Jimenez and CNN for the arrest, and attested to the necessity of the press to document what was happening in the streets. But some in uniform seemed uninformed, or more likely uncaring of those values as they attacked reporters, including some international correspondents who were likely stunned that this could happen in a country with the First Amendment in its Constitution.
“A free society depends on a free press, and when the press is fearful of reporting, when law enforcement targets members of the press with this kind of impunity, that strikes at the heart of our democracy,” Teresa Nelson, the ACLU of Minnesota’s legal director said in an interview.
The press has been intrepid, but risks not being able to report when law enforcement prevents, not protects, their right to do their job. And that includes being a watchdog over government — including law enforcement.
“You’re talking about an extraordinary period of civil unrest and the press’s job is a constitutionally recognized check on power,” said Gabe Rottman, director of the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which had an unprecedented number of media members co-sign a letter to the governor and Minnesota Department of Corrections on the matter. Any targeting of journalists, the letter stated, “is beyond the pale in a free society.”
And a free society requires an informed society. “The public’s right to know is directly threatened by arrest or the use of rubber bullets or batons in a very immediate and literal way,” Rottman said. “That’s what at stake.”
Indeed, there is much at stake for the state, the nation and the world in these attacks.
“Frankly, U.S. leadership had declined over the past three years, and there was very little on the world stage in terms of standing up for journalism, for press freedom, the rights and safety of journalists by the United States, so we’ve really felt that vacuum around the world,” Radsch said, adding: “This has really put a nail in that coffin.”
More than one person is wielding the hammer, Radsch rightly notes. But the most prominent is President Donald Trump, whose hostility of the press is evidently shared by some of the officers who stated “I don’t care” when journalists identified themselves as having media credentials.
They should care. And so should all Americans, both to protect media freedoms here and project them abroad, a job made much harder with the worldwide attention to this country not living up to its vaunted values.
“It’s all wrapped up in this whole ‘fake news’ vilification of the media,” Radsch said. “There has been a real denigration of journalism, targeting of journalists and the news media, which cannot have helped.”
While there are national and international implications, it’s ultimately a local issue, Radsch added. That’s true not just for the media, but for the society it serves. “We have a lot of work to do in Minnesota, especially around race,” Nelson said. “Shining a light on the work that reporters do and the media does to shine that light and help us figure out a path forward, that’s more critical than ever.”
It’s also more critical than ever for law enforcement to respect the legal rights of journalists, and that those officers who violate those rights be held responsible for their reprehensible attacks on the free press, and by extension, our very democracy.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.