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Missouri police actions slammed as threat to press freedom

SWAT team handcuffs reporters at a McDonald's; TV crew tear-gassed

Amid the unrest that has gripped Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, two journalists found themselves in handcuffs after a SWAT team cleared out the McDonald’s where they were charging their phones. Their constant stream of tweets stopped, and other journalists used social media to express concern for their safety.

“I hope you’re happy with yourself,” one of the officers told Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery after his arrest late Wednesday for allegedly trespassing in the fast-food restaurant, according to Lowery’s account.

“This story’s going to get out there. It’s going to be on the front page of The Washington Post tomorrow,” Lowery responded.

“Yeah, well, you’re going to be in my jail cell tonight,” Lowery quoted the officer as saying.

Journalists and civil-rights advocates have decried what happened to Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilley as an assault on the freedom of the press. And while it might seem to be an isolated incident, reporters and rights advocates see it as part of a troubling trend of militarized police forces failing to understand the constitution. 

Neither the St. Louis Police Dept. nor the Ferguson Police Dept. responded to Al Jazeera's requests for comment. Lowery and Reilly told Al Jazeera that both law enforcement agencies were involved in their arrest and detention.

Authorities released both without charging them with any crime after about half an hour in a holding cell, the Post reports. Wesley said a police officer pushed him up against a soda machine. Reilly also reported being physically mistreated.

"They essentially acted as a military force. It was incredible," Reilly said, according to the Huffington Post.

"The worst part was he slammed my head against the glass purposefully on the way out of McDonald's and then sarcastically apologized for it."

Separately Wednesday night, police fired tear gas at an Al Jazeera America television crew covering the events, and dismantled their equipment after the three fled the choking cloud. They were not injured. 
Although they repeatedly shouted "press," the advancing police continued to fire rubber bullets in their direction. 

"Al Jazeera America is stunned by this egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story," the company said in a statement issued Thursday, calling for an investigation into alleged police harassment of journalists in Ferguson. 

Civil rights advocates say increasing “militarization” of police forces drives abuses that endanger innocents, whether they are journalists or babies sleeping in their cribs. Federal policies allow local police forces to receive combat-ready personnel vehicles and firearms from surplus Pentagon stockpiles.

“Militarization has spilled over into the treatment of public and the press, who are trying to witness and document the actions of Ferguson police,” said Lee Rowland, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.

Rowland said police need to understand that citizens can film them and record their actions, while citizens also need to know and stand up for their rights.

“Both members of the press and public have a First Amendment right to photograph anything in plain view as long as they’re not interfering with legitimate law-enforcement operations,” she said, referring to police demands that the journalists not record their arrests.

“Police in Ferguson unfortunately got very heavy-handed in their attempts to shut down videotaping. The First Amendment prohibits them from doing that, full stop.”

In defending the right to record police, Rowland said the ACLU has “been overwhelmingly successful.”

Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City in 2011 saw the arrests of several journalists. Matt Lysiak, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, found himself in custody after he followed a group of OWS demonstrators marching into a vacant lot.

Having covered the city’s crime and breaking news for years, Lysiak chatted with a police press relations officer. Soon, police began arresting everyone who had made it into the lot.

“An officer said to me, ‘We are not making exceptions for media and that means you, Lysiak,’” he said, insisting the officer knew he was with the Daily News.

“I thought they were kidding at first, and then they try to take my notepad and my phone. I pull my hand back and put my stuff in my bag and then they cuff me, they put me in their van and I get brought in,” Lysiak said, adding that he was detained for six hours and released without charges after Daily News lawyers intervened.

It didn’t used to be like this, Lysiak said, especially before 9/11, after which some New York journalists say the police began behaving with greater arrogance and disregard for reporters' rights.

In years past, your “press pass entitled you to walk past police lines to talk to witnesses,” Lysiak said.

“Today, if you’re wearing a press pass, it makes you a target. Every reporter knows this and has a story about it. If they see a press pass, a cop will walk right over to them and tell them to get the f--k out. It can be really intimidating.” 

"Reporters I know who worked before 9/11 believe that NYPD (New York Police Department) egos swelled. You had the streets filled with these 25-year-old kids who believed they were gods."

Rounding up reporters along with demonstrators is nothing new, said Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, a press rights advocacy group.

“We see this has come up before in protests against the World Trade Organization and others. Unfortunately, a police tactic is to essentially sweep up and grab everybody and sort it out later,” he said, adding that aside from a civil-rights abuse, it was a waste of taxpayer money.

Policinski said he has little patience for police who violate journalists’ constitutional rights.

“There’s no excuse for any officer to be on the street without knowledge of those constitutional rights,” he said.

David Cuillier, president of Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), contends that while police are there to maintain order, there’s no reason to "throw them against a pop machine and arrest them,” which Lowery said the police did to him.

Cullier said SPJ was willing to help fix the problem.

“We think they [police departments] really need to educate their police officers about citizens’ and journalists’ right to photograph and we’re offering assistance in that training. We would be happy to help them learn what’s appropriate and this was clearly inappropriate.”

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