WWTPD? Are police and Homeland Security colluding to silence reporters covering Occupy?

Is Homeland Security coordinating crackdowns on journalists?

Images that police prefer to prevent

Wonkette reports that the U.S. Department of Justice let slip that Homeland Security coordinated the infamous conference call where mayors of cities with Occupy encampments coordinated their heavy-handed eviction efforts.

In The Guardian, Naomi Wolf says that the National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists are issuing FOIA requests to find out whether Homeland Security and local police also colluded on tactics aimed at preventing journalists from covering those police actions.

Wolf’s article notes that in New York City, police officers outside Zuccotti Park asked journalists to identify themselves. Those who did were then ushered away under threat of arrest.

The police, of course, always argue that their goal was to protect the reporters, while the real reason was to avoid anymore images of police brutality that have continued to stun the public. In numerous cities where police were emptying the Occupy encampments, “protecting” journalists often meant they were punched, kicked and otherwise abused. How about protection from the police?

Is this what press freedom has come to?

How can this happen?

Wolf extends blame beyond local officials to the federal government, beginning with Republican Rep. Peter King of New York who sits atop the Homeland Security subcommittee in Congress. King has been quoted in Huffington Post calling the Occupy Wall Street protesters a “ragtag mob” of “anarchists.” Wolf also wonders whether the Obama administration is giving tacit approval to press crackdowns, since Homeland Security is ultimately answerable to the president.

On the few occasions when President Obama has talked about #OWS, he has been somewhat supportive, but tentative. Progressives already disappointed with Obamas refusal to fight on civil rights issues are concerned that he will not speak up for journalists who appear to be targeted for retaliation.

It’s easy to see why many politicians are reluctant to tie themselves too closely to the Occupy movement, for fear of being tainted if a violent incident occurs and also because the protesters are critical of Republicans and Democrats alike. But if both Democrats and Republicans are colluding to keep reporters from covering the Occupy movement, the role of the citizen journalist becomes even more important. Protesters and observes armed with video cameras and cellphones are filling the gap when the mainstream press either fails to send reporters or those who try to cover events are denied their right to do so.

It is also worth noting that Wolf published her allegations The Guardian, which has been regularly outdoing the U.S. prestige press with its Occupy analysis.

Fighting for our rights

This YouTube labeled AMAZING video of a journalist not taking crap from NYPD raises as many questions as it purportedly answers about the relationship between the police and the press at Occupy events.

The title card “How To Successfully Resist Police Intimidation and Defend Your Rights” argues that the young man is a hero for persuading police to acknowledge his First Amendment right to video on a public sidewalk. Viewed from the police perspective, however, the video could be viewed as an example of a police officer flicking at a pesky mosquito. And, based on the experience of journalists at other Occupy events, the young man with the video camera was lucky that the confrontation ended peacefully.

But what are reporters’ rights in these situations? In our post-9/11 world, the National Press Photographers Association has been complaining that police are restricting photographers and videographers’ access more than ever. The article outlines the legal history that should guarantee journalists the right to video from sidewalks and other public thoroughfares.

The bottom line is that if a police officer asks you to move, the law says you must do so or risk arrest like anyone else. Journalists can always fight for their rights later in a courtroom, but that doesn’t get you the images you wanted to take at the site.

A huge question is whether the young man in the video is considered a journalist or a blogger. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains that the law is still murky and confusing on this point, with journalists traditionally enjoying far more First Amendment protections than bloggers.

An example of an official press pass

The United States government does not license journalists as a number of other countries do. However, you hear the officer in the video asking to see the videographer’s press pass.

Police agencies often issue press passes that allow journalists to cross police lines when they are reporting on crimes and accidents. It isn’t a license per se, but official identification. Acquiring a press pass is again more of a privilege than a right, since the agencies set their own guidelines. In most cases, citizen journalists need not bother to apply.

Even with a press pass, police officers routinely deny reporters access for various reasons. But, as paid journalists disappear, we must pressure authorities to extend the pitifully few press protections afforded corporate media to citizen journalists as well.

WWTPD?

The MSM mostly ignored news of the more than 100,000 people who marched to protest WI Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to dismantle collective bargaining

As a Sixties leftover, I can attest that mainstream media back then was actually more likely to give protesters a voice than the corporate-controlled news organizations of today.

When Abby Hoffman and his Yippies rained dollar bills down on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, to highlight the greed as traders scrambled to pick up the money, reporters from major networks were there to capture the manufactured action.

In contrast today, mainstream broadcast news organizations studiously ignored the protest in Madison, Wisconsin, last March when more than 100,000 people showed up at the Capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to dismantle collective bargaining.

Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is WWTPD? – Wat Would Thomas Paine Do? His incendiary brand of pamphleteering has more in common with today’s bloggers than “objective” journalists who risk being fired if they express any particular political point of view.

Thomas Paine did not need a press pass to write “Common Sense,” and the First Amendment was not written to guarantee media companies a steady stream of images of Ashton Kutcher caught cheating on his soon-to-be-ex-wife. The Tea Party’s reverence for “our founding fathers” borders on the cultish, but I would hope we can find common ground in fighting to ensure our right to a truly free press, whether or not the journalism in question is practiced for a profit or not.

In an interconnected world where we are facing complex issues ranging from imminent economic collapse to climate change, we need all the information we can get, from as many sources as possible. The mainstream media still has resources that citizen journalists can only dream about. Citizen journalists often have the time, the commitment and the access that professionals may not. As Paine would say, these are times that try men’s souls, and “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.”

One thought on “WWTPD? Are police and Homeland Security colluding to silence reporters covering Occupy?

  1. Pingback: The Nation offers advice for reporters covering protests | Occupy Journalism

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