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Reporters beware at upcoming conventions

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From the Summer 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12. Before they are keepsakes, relegated to…

From the Summer 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12.

Before they are keepsakes, relegated to storage boxes and pinned to office walls, media credentials for political conventions are supposed to be something of a safeguard. They should guarantee some level of access to the event itself and — perhaps in conjunction with press passes assigned by the local police agency — help reporters cover the protests outside.

It’s doesn’t always work out so smoothly. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has set up free hotlines for journalists covering the political conventions since 1972, and every year reports of interference with the media — and worse — have mounted.

It’s something reporters heading to Denver and St. Paul in August need to be aware of.

The 2004 conventions

Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, security was a prime concern at the Republican National Convention in New York City.

Daniel Jones, a journalist with WRDR radio, applied for and got credentials from the convention and the New York Police Department. But neither set of press passes was good enough on Aug. 31, 2004 when the police and the Secret Service detained him after finding on him anti-Bush protest schedules. He’d gotten them from demonstrators. He was held for more than three hours, and had his credentials taken away.

More than a dozen reporters like Jones, some with credentials and some without, were detained during the convention. Some were held for more than 24 hours.

The Reporters Committee’s hotline took about 9 or 10 calls during the convention from reporters needing its free legal assistance. Attorneys from the law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz staffed and sponsored the hotline, which was manned by lawyers who’d been trained in working in the New York criminal courts. One hotline attorney had arranged with the police to guide journalists caught up in the detainment of protesters to be quickly released.

One issue they may not have anticipated: Confusion, by both journalists and police, over which credentials were acceptable where.

NYPD said police credentials were recognized but never required. The agency said any current credentials of a working reporter were recognized during the convention, and police acted quickly to release reporters who were mistakenly detained.

But Daniel Cashin, a cameraman for Democracy Now and DCTV New York, was detained for more than an hour at a temporary holding area at Grand Central Station, even though he had Convention credentials on him. And AP photo runner Jeannette Warner was held for 12 hours.

A photographer with her was released after showing NYPD credentials.

Freelance photojournalist Geoffrey O’Connor did not have his credentials with him when he was detained while filming a protest. He was released after he received the proper documents, but a police officer threatened to arrest him and revoke his credentials when he resumed filming.

RNC credentials were clearly not enough if the journalists were part of a mass street arrest.

“If you go to where people are protesting and don’t want to be a part of the protest, you’re always going to run the risk that maybe you’ll get tied up with it.” Mayor Bloomberg said on WABC when asked about the numerous arrests of innocent bystanders and journalists.

At least three journalists were hauled in to Pier 57 where a temporary intake center was set up — and dubbed “Guantanamo on the Hudson.” The former bus depot served as a holding cell with 40 people to each chain-link pen.

Police said protestors typically waited about 90 minutes while being searched and interviewed before being taken to a booking facility where they were either ticketed and released or held for a court appearance.

Yet, at least one journalist, Kelley Benjamin with a Tampa, Fla. weekly, was held for more than 24 hours.

The 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston was held one month earlier in Boston with no reports of journalist detainments or arrests, though critics assailed the designated “Free Speech Zone” for protestors — including chain link fencing, razor wire barricades and police dog patrols.

The 2000 conventions

The 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles brought back bitter reminders of the notorious Chicago Convention in 1968: police reverted to pepper spray, baton assault and rubber bullets to control demonstrators.

Journalists working among the protestors, trying to cover an increasingly volatile situation from every angle, did not expect to be treated as targets.

Photographer Stefan Zacklin of U.S. News and World Report was snapping pictures of police arresting a group of demonstrators when he was ordered to the ground and handcuffed. Police were preparing to release him, realizing he was a journalist, when he quipped that they’d stopped him from doing his job. Off to the police station he went.

Reports surfaced that journalists were mocked for asserting their First Amendment rights to cover the scene. The situation grew dangerous — several journalists were hospitalized with bruised ribs and a cracked shoulder blade after covering one of the most turbulent protests of the Convention. They’d been wearing brightly colored media passes, and they claimed the police pursued them to stop them from covering the demonstration.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of seven reporters alleging that no protestors were between the reporters and the officers firing rubber bullets.

The case (Crespo v. Los Angeles) resulted with Los Angeles police officials agreeing to pay $60,000 to the journalists and to implement a new policy within the police department recognizing that the media has the right to cover public meetings, whether they are legal assemblies or not.

The Philadelphia Republican Convention was not nearly as violent, but two reporters were arrested despite carrying the proper media passes. 

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Reporters Committee Convention Hotlines

Every four years since the 1972 conventions, the Reporters Committee has operated special convention hotlines for reporters who face legal hurdles, arrest or detention while covering the conventions or the protests surrounding them.

For the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the hotline will be staffed by attorneys with the law firm of Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz LLP.

During the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, attorneys Paul Hannah of Kelly & Berens and Bill Tilton and George Dunn of Tilton & Dunn.

The Reporters Committee’s regular legal defense hotline will also be available during the conventions. Calls with convention arrest problems will be directed to the lawyers in the convention cities.

Please check the Web site below for detailed information on police procedures during the conventions.

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DNC Hotline: (303) 376-2404

RNC Hotline: (651) 238-1884

Reporters Committee Hotline: (800) 336-4243

Hotline web page: www.rcfp.org/conventions