NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Newsgathering · March 28, 2006
House panel hears about FBI agents’ assault on reporters
March 28, 2006 · As video of a chaotic February clash between Puerto Rican journalists and the FBI silently filled a screen in a U.S. House of Representatives hearing room today, one of the reporters, Normando Valentin, described how FBI agents pushed him in the rib cage and pepper sprayed him in the face, sending him to the hospital for several hours.
A camouflaged agent is shown in the video spraying Valentin directly in the face as he tried to cover one of six raids on the island targeting a militant Puerto Rico independence group on Feb. 10.
“I felt that my face was burning. I could not breathe. I was disoriented. The only thing I could feel was being pushed,” he told an ad hoc House committee of seven Democrats convened by Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Conyers organized the briefing, he said, because House Republicans who lead the committee declined to call a full congressional hearing into the Feb. 10 incident and the FBI’s attempted Sept. 23 arrest of federal fugitive Filiberto Ojeda Rios, which resulted in his death.
The agent who used excessive force against Valentin and other agents at the scene who targeted other journalists should be “administratively disciplined and criminal prosecuted,” Oscar J. Serrano, president of the Puerto Rico Journalists Association, told the panel, which included three House members of Puerto Rican origin.
The association identified one of the agents at the scene as Jose Figueroa Sancha, special deputy agent in charge, and reported that Luis Fraticelli, special agent in charge, issued a press release justifying the actions because reporters were caught on video throwing objects and committing other acts that could be prosecuted.
“They are lying and they’re covering up their agent’s criminal acts,” Serrano said.
The FBI was invited to testify at today’s briefing, but declined, Conyers said. But an FBI spokesman told the Reporters Committee last month that agents were forced to use pepper spray because the journalists “refused to comply with a lawful order to remove themselves from a crime scene.”
In the video, several journalists who were attacked are shown having bottles of water poured into their burning eyes.
“What were they thinking?” Serrano said of the agents. “In what Justice Department training manual is a notebook, a video camera or a voice recorder described as a lethal weapon? What kind of a riot were they seeing in their minds where everyone else saw a group of reporters making questions?”
Both the Sept. 23 shooting death of Ojeda Rios and the attack on journalists are the subject of civil lawsuits filed in federal court in San Juan by the Puerto Rico Department of Justice, which is investigating both incidents but has been unable to get any cooperation or evidence from the FBI, Puerto Rico’s Attorney General Roberto Jose Sanchez told the panel.
Other experts testified to the decades-old tension between Puerto Ricans seeking independence for the island and the FBI, a contentious relationship that likely contributed to the FBI-media clash.
Rep. Jose E. Serrano of New York, whose family emigrated from Puerto Rico when he was a baby, said because the clash happened in his homeland and not on the U.S. mainland, it got little attention.
“Can you imagine if something like this happened in New York or California?” he said. “It would be on TV for the rest of the week. It would be an outrage.”
The main goal of the briefing was “to make sure we had enough evidence on the table to back up the need for a congressional hearing” by the House Judiciary Committee, Said Rep. Robert Scott of Virginia. “Certainly, the testimony and the videos have made that case.”
Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York said the hearing left her “ashamed as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Law enforcement is out there to keep order, not to violate the rights of citizens.”