N.Y. police violated journalists' rights during protests, says lawyer's group report

Amanda Simmons | Newsgathering | News | July 27, 2012

A nearly 200-page independent oversight report released by a group of human rights lawyers this week found that New York police officers often violated the rights of journalists covering Occupy Wall Street protests and arrested at least 18 of them.

The Protest and Assembly Rights Project, the coalition of lawyers that authored the report, listed numerous incidents where reporters were obstructed, arrested or even physically abused since the beginning of the Occupy movement in September. The study also found that the New York Police Department conducted frequent surveillance and limited public gatherings throughout the course of the demonstrations, which are still ongoing.

According to the report, a “media blackout” during an eviction of protestors in Zuccotti Park on Nov. 15 was “the most egregious single example of police violation of the rights of the media to cover protests freely.” Relying on eight months’ worth of data collection and the testimony of journalists who were blocked from covering the eviction, the study noted that many reporters were forcibly removed from the scene and that at least 10 of them were arrested that day. One freelance journalist for The New York Post was allegedly “thrown into a choke hold” by a law enforcement officer.

It is unclear if the report's sections about the treatment of the media focused only on police actions towards journalists who were certified through the NYPD.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press issued a statement in response to the eviction incident, decrying the police's "singling out" of credentialed journalists in an attempt to separate them from the news events unfolding at the disbanding as "outrageous and unacceptable."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended police actions against the media as an attempt to “protect the members of the press,” according to the study. Based on its findings, the report, “Suppressing Protest,” recommended that the mayor develop an independent review of police response to demonstrations. It added that despite its “significant abuse allegations,” New York City currently has no major review of its law enforcement practices.

The lawyers who compiled the information were able to verify the arrests of 18 credentialed journalists who covered Occupy demonstrations in New York from September to July but noted that, based on reports by Josh Stearns, the journalism and public media director for Free Press, there were likely more unconfirmed incidents. Stearns tracks the arrests of reporters during protests and has documented 85 such arrests across the country, 44 of which took place in New York during the same time period. He includes professional reporters, freelancers, photographers, independent filmmakers and citizen journalists in his tally.

In another alleged instance of physical abuse mentioned in the report, a radio host said that that he was thrown to the ground and arrested by police while photographing and shooting video of the arrest of a protestor on Dec. 12.

Although the report focused on the NYPD’s alleged infringement of international human rights laws, many of the examples of misconduct towards the journalists that it referenced likely violate more local statutes as well. For example, individuals – including journalists – can record police officers without their consent in New York, since the state only requires one party to be aware that a conversation is being recorded.

The Protest and Assembly Rights Project said that in the near future it plans to release similar reports analyzing police conduct towards protestors and journalists involved with Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Boston, Mass., Charlotte, Va. and Oakland and San Francisco, Calif.

The NYPD did not return requests for comment.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Can We Tape?: New York