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Reporters get caught by ‘trap and arrest’ tactics

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From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

By Kathleen Dunphy

As he covered the demonstrations at the World Bank/International Monetary Fund in April, Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Will Potter was aware that 17 journalists had been arrested during protests at the same location in September 2002. Despite his caution and clearly displayed press pass, Potter was beaten by baton-wielding police while attempting to comply with an order to disperse.

Potter is one of several journalists who have had difficulties covering protests and demonstrations. In reporting these events, some journalists have been detained, fined and even arrested.

Potter, who wrote a freelance article for The Washington City Paper following his experience, said he was one of about 25 people caught as police ordered protestors to clear the streets, and then proceeded to hit them with batons.

“The police weren’t being attacked, they just went into the crowd,” said Potter, who was wearing his congressional press pass. I don’t know if they didn’t notice it or just didn’t care.”

Potter said he knows of only two protestors arrested from the section of the march he was covering, despite the force used by police.

“That’s troubling to me because if they went into the crowd and did all this, it seems like they would have the pretext of arresting someone,” Potter said.

The experience, Potter said, has changed his outlook on covering protests.

“My focus now, and my trust, has shifted from taking the police statement at face value, to when I hear those statements I know there’s another side to the story, another truthful side,” he said. “We should have a lot more skepticism of not the protestors but the police. The burden of proof has to be placed on them.”

Potter said the police seemed to cease hitting people as arbitrarily as they began. In contrast to September 2002, no journalists were arrested during the April World Bank/IMF protest.

Potter filed a report with the D.C. Police Department’s Office of Citizen Complaint Review and was informed on April 29 that there is sufficient evidence for an investigation. He was not given any specific time line but was told that such investigations involve a long process of interviews.

In response to arrests at the September 2002 demonstrations, four George Washington University student photographers and three GWU law students, who were among the 17 journalists arrested, are suing the U.S. attorney general, the attorney for the District of Columbia and the National Park Service.

Critics of police tactics that have swept up journalists in mass arrests note that the “trap and arrest” method — in which a crowd is surrounded and everyone within that boundary is arrested — makes it too easy for police to sweep journalists and innocent bystanders into the arrest pool.

Police used this “trap and arrest” method in San Francisco on March 20, one day after the war in Iraq began.

During the numerous nonpermitted anti-war protests staged that day, one student journalist was arrested and three San Francisco Chronicle reporters were detained.

Nick Varanelli, a photographer for The (Sacramento City College) Express, was arrested on charges of rioting and blocking traffic while photographing one of the protests. He repeatedly displayed his press pass but was told that it was not valid because it had not been issued by the San Francisco Police Department.

“If you have reporters coming from all over the country, everyone has to fill out an application?” Varanelli asked.

The Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent letters to the San Francisco Police Department and District Attorney’s Office, said the chapter’s president, Beverly Kees. The letters expressed concern that SFPD violated Varanelli’s First Amendment rights when he was detained for more than eight hours.

“We’re upset any time a government entity tries to stop the press from doing its job,” Kees said.

According to a press release from the SPJ chapter, the organization found no legal basis upon which student journalists may be denied First Amendment protections.

During the same protests in San Francisco, Michael Cabanatuan, a transportation reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, who was wearing his SFPD-issued press pass, was detained for more than 90 minutes. He, too, was caught by the “trap and arrest” method.

Cabanatuan followed a group of protestors as they traipsed through the streets of San Francisco with the goal of eventually shutting down the Bay Bridge. The group switched directions whenever police appeared.

Cabanatuan said he was on the sidewalk trying to stick with the group when a line of about 25 San Francisco Police Department officers approached the protestors, blocking their forward progress with billy clubs.

The police ordered the protestors to go back. As they complied, another line of officers formed behind the group. Cabanatuan estimated that about 200 people were hemmed in, with no alternative exits from the street.

Cabanatuan said he attempted to reason with at least five officers, repeatedly displaying his press pass, but they all ignored or rebuffed his efforts at conversation.

“This is typical of San Francisco Police; they just don’t respond to your questions,” Cabanatuan said.

The few responses he did receive included: “Go sit down” and “Well, you can tell it to the judge,” according to Cabanatuan. He called his editors from the scene and was told to continue trying to get an officer to let him out.

At one point Cabanatuan said Chronicle editors considered sending a lawyer to the scene. But as officers began to arrest the protestors, Cabanatuan said he showed his press pass one more time. The arresting officer told him to go, which he did.

While being held by police, Cabanatuan saw another journalist trying to get his press pass recognized. According to Trapper Byrne, deputy metro editor at the Chronicle, two other reporters for the newspaper also were detained for about 15 minutes.

Both Varanelli and Cabanatuan were using the same tactic, following the protestors from the sidewalk, and were caught up in the police lines and detained despite having press passes they readily provided for the police. Although the student journalist was the only one arrested that day, all those involved were obstructed from their work.

Jeff Imig, a documentary videographer for Tucson’s Pan Left Productions, a nonprofit production company, was arrested while covering the city’s Cesar Chavez Peace March on March 29. The only person arrested at the 700-person protest, Imig was charged with failure to comply with a police officer’s order and with obstructing a public thoroughfare.

Imig insists he acted in a manner appropriate for covering the protest, and added that he has dealt with arrest threats while covering previous Tucson area protests. Elizabeth Burden, executive director of Pan Left Productions, said that independent media especially have had difficulty protecting their free-press rights.

Soon after Imig’s arrest, Pan Left released a statement expressing concern that unspoken policies violating the First Amendment are being used by law enforcement. According to the release, Imig stressed the importance of giving independent journalists the same considerations given those who work for more widely known media organizations, as well as open access to cover events.

Two days before the incident in Tucson, Lee Nichols, an editor at The Austin Chronicle, filed a complaint with the Austin Police Department for being pepper- sprayed in the face while covering a March 20 anti-war protest. According to Nichols, he was standing between two cameras in an obvious group of journalists.

“The news media being able to cover the activities of our government and especially the police is Democracy 101,” Nichols said. “You have to be able to keep an eye on what police do. And that’s hard to do when you’re being sprayed in the face with mace.”

Nichols’ complaint also mentioned an incident in which Chronicle photographer Jana Birchum was grabbed by a police officer. A picture showing the incident was published on the newspaper’s Web site. Nichols had received no response to the complaint.

These situations show the ease with which journalistic freedoms can be compromised. Even the most careful members of the press are sometimes unable to avoid being caught up in events they are covering.