NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · PUERTO RICO · Newsgathering · Feb. 17, 2006
Congressmen seek investigation into FBI-press altercation
Feb. 17, 2006 · Three U.S. congressmen asked FBI Director Robert S. Mueller this week to launch an investigation into what they say was excessive use of force against journalists covering an FBI raid in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico Feb. 10.
FBI agents dispersed pepper spray on more than 10 journalists — including television reporter Normando Valentin, cameraman Victor Sanchez and radio reporter Joel Lago — who were covering one of six raids on the island targeting a militant Puerto Rico independence group, The San Juan Star reported.
The journalists, three of whom had to be hospitalized, dispute the FBI account, alleging that in addition to the spray, the agents jumped on and hit the journalists, the Star reported. Three journalists have filed complaints with local police.
Special Agent Harry Rodriguez, an FBI spokesman in San Juan, declined to comment.
FBI officials said they were forced to use the pepper spray because the journalists “refused to comply with a lawful order to remove themselves from a crime scene,” said FBI spokesman Bill Carter.
“The First Amendment does not guarantee the press a constitutional right to crime scenes when the general public is excluded,” Carter said.
Three congressmen of Puerto Rico origin — Reps. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) — wrote Mueller Tuesday asking for an investigation to determine whether the FBI’s actions were “excessive or unwarranted.”
“We are particularly troubled by what appeared to be the excessive use of force against members of the press as they attempted to cover the FBI operation,” the congressmen wrote Mueller. “Video of the incident has been aired extensively in television coverage of the day’s events and it widely available on the Internet.”
Puerto Rico Police Chief Pedro Toledo criticized the FBI’s use of pepper spray as “completely outside of the norm,” Serrano and his colleagues wrote.
“In our democracy, the most fundamental obligations is law enforcement agencies in to uphold the constitutional rights of citizens as well as to protect the freedom of the press,” the letter continued. “Even in Puerto Rico, where the Bureau and its agents have a reputation for behaving as if they are above the law, the FBI is not exempt from these duties.”
Carter declined comment on the letter, which Mueller had not replied to by Friday morning. “The director will respond to the concerns in the letter . . . ” Carter said. “Far be it from us to respond to the congressmen in the press.”