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Amid increasing physical and legal threats at protests, here’s how journalists can protect themselves

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News coverage of protests is essential to informing the public about political dissent, responses to important issues and how law…

News coverage of protests is essential to informing the public about political dissent, responses to important issues and how law enforcement handles such demonstrations. But journalists who report on these events often face physical attacks, arrest and searches and seizures of their equipment.

In fact, the most dangerous place for a U.S. journalist in the field last year was at a protest, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found in a report last March that surveyed the 2017 data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The Reporters Committee and more than two dozen press freedom groups launched the tracker last year to document threats to press freedom in the U.S. amid increasing hostility toward the news media.

Of the 122 incidents in the U.S. that the tracker logged in 2017, nearly half occurred at protests, including:

  • 31 physical attacks on journalists — accounting for nearly 70 percent of the 45 journalist attacks last year.
  • 29 arrests of journalists — accounting for 85 percent of the total journalist arrests documented last year. Most of these arrests occurred at protests where police used a controversial technique known as “kettling” in which the police corral protesters into a confined space, keep them trapped for a period of time without food, water or toilet facilities and then arrest everyone en masse.
  • 12 instances where law enforcement seized journalists’ equipment — accounting for 80 percent of the 15 such instances documented last year. Most equipment seizures occurred when journalists were arrested while covering protests, and in some cases, the equipment — such as cameras, battery packs and cellphones — was searched and held for a period of time before being returned.

These threats have a chilling effect on journalists, who may reasonably decide to stay home rather than cover a protest and risk assault, arrest or the exposure or loss of newsgathering equipment. This could also mean the public would lose out on valuable information.

In light of these incidents, the Reporters Committee has compiled the following tips for journalists to protect themselves while covering protests:

Before the protest

  1. Do your homework ahead of time.Identify potential threats and prepare for them.
  2. Find a lawyer who will be available while you are reporting.Keep the phone number for a local criminal lawyer and bail bondsman handy (e.g., on a business card or written on your arm so you do not have to unlock your phone in the presence of police) and make sure the lawyer will be available to take your call. Contact the Reporters Committee’s hotline for assistance in finding an attorney.
  3. Research the location of the protest and nearby police precincts.Give the phone numbers for those precincts to your attorney, who can call there to find you if you become unresponsive to phone calls or text messages in the event you are arrested.
  4. Identify who may be adversarial to the press.If it may be protesters, stand apart from the crowd and closer to police, clearly identifying yourself as press. If you are concerned about police, stay closer to the crowd. However, use your best judgment.
  5. Research riot control tactics in the area and bring personal protective equipment as appropriate.Check with local police to make sure your equipment is permitted, at least for journalists (e.g., if you expect pepper spray or tear gas, bring a full-face gas mask; if you expect rubber bullets, bring body armor, a helmet and a trauma kit).
  6. Plan for kettling.If you anticipate kettling, bring your attorney’s phone number so you can report it and so your attorney can contact the police to try to get you out of the kettle. Bring water, snacks, a medical kit and additional layers of clothing in case the weather changes.
  7. Team up with another reporter.Reporting alone is dangerous, particularly if you are operating a camera or video camera and are observing your surroundings from behind a viewfinder.

At the protest

  1. Bring a government-issued ID and cash.This can speed up processing if you are arrested and will enable you to pay for a bail bond.
  2. Present yourself as a journalist and wear press credentials prominently.To avoid being mistaken for a protester, use your best judgment and try not to wear clothing that matches what protesters are wearing (e.g., all black). Also, engage with police before the protest so they know who you are and may be less likely to arrest you. However, use your best judgment under the circumstances. In some cases, police and protesters have targeted journalists.
  3. Be aware of the situation and avoid breaking the law.Set the timer on your phone to go off every 15 minutes to remind you to look around, identify exits, assess police interactions with protesters, determine whether the situation is escalating and whether you may be doing something illegal, such as trespassing on private property. This is especially important for photographers and videographers whose view is often limited.
  4. If police issue a dispersal order or give any other directives, promptly comply and prominently display your press credentials.If you encounter a problem, contact your attorney.
  5. If police stop you, politely explain that you are covering the protest as a journalist and show your press credentials.Record your interaction with police, if possible, so you have documentation of what happened in case you are later charged with a crime. If you are arrested, contact your attorney or the Reporters Committee’s hotline as soon as possible. If you are working with another journalist, ask that person to notify your attorney and editor, as well as take your cellphone, camera or other work product or equipment for safekeeping.
  6. If police ask to search or seize your equipment, you do not have to consent.The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 restricts law enforcement from searching for and seizing a journalist’s work product and documentary materials. Rehearse your response in advance. You can say something like “I’m a journalist, and my equipment and its contents belong to my company. If you want to access it, you will first need to contact their attorney.”

If you have questions about covering a protest or your legal rights as a journalist, contact the Reporters Committee’s Legal Defense Hotline through this online form, or at 1-800-336-4243 or hotline@rcfp.org.

Click here to download or print a PDF of this tip sheet.

This tip sheet was written by Reporters Committee staff attorney Sarah Matthews, with research support from journalism intern Jose Ochoa.