Amid days of escalating unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, an emerging schism is being played out between police and the press.
With journalists getting caught in the crossfire, they are no longer only covering protests but becoming part of a narrative that seems to point towards excessive militarization and heavy-handed police tactics.
Things came to a head on Wednesday when two reporters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post, were arrested and assaulted after a heavily armed SWAT team invaded a local McDonald’s.
According to a HuffPost official statement, Reilly was detained, “for not packing up fast enough.” The Washington Post also called the arrest “illegal” and an “assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.”
Following their release, both journalists talked about being roughed up and painted a grim picture of aggressive, military-style tactics, which were partly caught on camera. Outrage over the incident spilled into both the media and social networks.
In another episode, citizen journalist Antonio French was jailed for 24 hours, charged with unlawful assembly. There have also been other allegations of police using intimidation tactics, threats of arrest, and claims of imminent violence to keep press away from covering the story.
“I think it’s very disturbing that the police in St. Louis County, Ferguson, are so out of control that they’re even arresting reporters who are just doing their job,” said NABJ President Bob Butler.
“The biggest concern is if they’re treating reporters this way, I shudder to think how they’re treating citizens in St Louis County when the cameras are not there.”
Elizabeth Matthews, a reporter from NBC affiliate KSDK, has also been on the receiving end of a frightening confrontation with police in Ferguson. On Wednesday, Matthews and two photojournalists were in a quiet residential area in Ferguson working on an unrelated story about the school district.
She said that while they were sitting in clearly marked “live” media trucks, police approached them with “guns drawn.”
“We were in a very quiet area,” said Matthews. “They came over to us, guns drawn, probably 20 or so officers, which is a scary thing. My hands go immediately in the air and I said ‘I’m media, I’m media.’”
“They said we’re here. We heard you were in distress. Well, we never put out a distress call; I don’t know where that’s coming from. They basically said, ‘we’re forcing you out of the neighborhood.”
The incident happened around the same time an Al Jazeera America camera crew was overcome with tear gas fired near their vehicle in Ferguson. Moments later, police took down the crew’s light kit and pointed their camera towards the ground.
“Al Jazeera 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 network said in a statement.
Press freedom is an important premise of a democratic society, as are the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.
Indeed, the ugly scenes coming out of Ferguson are concerning. The most poignant visual images surfacing are of police in riot gear firing smoke bombs and tear gas at demonstrators: powerful images that do not belong to Middle America but a war-zone.
Protesters are concerned that justice will not be served and angry that the name of the police officer (who we know now to be Darren Wilson) that shot and killed the 18-year-old was not released.
Trea Davenport, a publicist and reputation management expert, says police in Ferguson need to act swiftly to repair their damaged public image.
“While tensions are at their zenith and emotions raw, it is understandable that Ferguson law enforcement are reacting to immense pressures,” she said “However, their mishandling of critical constituencies — the press — is by far among the least savory instances of the intimidation of the media in recent history.”
“A swift, transparent and humble PR strategy is vital at this point. Without it, the downward trajectory of their external reputation maybe beyond mending.”
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter @Kunbiti.