Police assaults on media in the US are a worrying sign

CNN journalist Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested while reporting live on air

Live on air, a US police officer in full riot gear rams the Australian cameraman in the stomach with his shield then punches him in the face and camera. A second officer clubs the female correspondent on the back of the head with his truncheon as they both try to flee. Just seconds before, the two-person team for Australian channel 7News had been crouched beside a wall, out of the way, filming crowds of protesters by the White House that were suddenly being cleared ahead of a curfew.

The unprovoked and unnecessarily vicious attack on the camera crew was filmed from multiple angles, and has sparked international uproar as well as a complaint from the Australian authorities. The incident is apparently being investigated. But what made it more worrying is that it was not unique.

In fact, it was one of 170 similar police assaults on reporters documented by the US Press Freedom Tracker since protests and rallies sparked by the brutal police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, began across America and the world on 26 May. Calling it an “unprecedented” wave of attacks against the media in the US, the monitoring group said that more than 54 reporters have also been arrested – including CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his entire crew, who were handcuffed, one by one, live on air last Friday in Minneapolis.

The last shot from that extraordinary broadcast captured the legs of the police officer as the camera was pulled from Jimenez’s cameraman, as he explained to the baffled anchor he too was being taken away. They were later released, and the Minneapolis mayor apologised for the bizarre episode.

Over the last two weeks, monitors from organisations including Press Freedom Tracker and Bellingcat have recorded how police officers across more than 30 US states have shot journalists with rubber bullets, targeted them with stun grenades, teargassed, physically attacked, pepper-sprayed and arrested them. Many of these incidents have taken place live on air. They echo the examples of violence against protesters, who have been beaten up and shot at on camera too.

It is a deeply concerning barometer of the state of freedoms in the US – a country that markets itself as a beacon of democracy in the world

Media colleagues have been posting photos of themselves, covered in blood, their legs mottled blue from rubber bullets and teargas canisters. Photojournalist Linda Tirado was left permanently blinded in the left eye after being hit by a round in Minneapolis. Molly Hennessy-Fiske, a senior correspondent at the Los Angeles Times, shared images of her bruised and swollen legs and ankles, wounds also sustained during a protest she covered in Minneapolis.

“It really shocked me: [the police] were arm’s-length from me; my notebook was in front of the face; we had TV cameras with us. I said repeatedly, ‘We are reporters.’ But they fired on us specifically and then pursued us,” she told The Independent. “I have never experienced this before. Our group was very clearly identified as press. This is definitely a new development.”

The very public and widespread nature of the assaults on the media only suggests that security forces now believe they can behave like this with impunity, according to Reporters without Borders (RSF). Rebecca Vincent, RSF’s UK bureau director, describes it as the “real-life manifestation” of the consistent message from the president, Donald Trump, that newspapers and TV networks peddle “fake news” and are “corrupt”.

It is a deeply concerning barometer of the state of freedoms in the US – a country that markets itself as a beacon of democracy in the world. And because the country positions itself as a global setter of standards, it is sending a very worrying message abroad too.

“It does gives the rest of the world a bit of a carte blanche to do this freely to their citizens, safe in the knowledge that if the US cannot hold itself to account, it will not hold others to account,” Vincent explains, adding that this “Trumpian trend” is particularly concerning as it comes amid deteriorating press freedoms around the world. “[US allies] like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey with poor records already knew before this that they could get away with even more. It is now accelerated. It is an alarming state of affairs globally.”

Vincent warns that this hostility towards the basic function of a free press could have an impact even closer to home. In the UK, the RSF has noted with alarm that press conferences have been moved from parliament to Downing Street, where access has been restricted and questions from the press shortened.

It is likely to have a far starker impact in countries such as Egypt, where the free press has been strangled over decades, leaving it 14 places from the bottom of RSF’s press freedom index. In Egypt, one of the few remaining ways to try to secure the release of journalists – both Egyptian and foreign – who have been arrested by the authorities for their reporting is to pile international pressure on the authorities, to make noise. Quiet diplomatic pushback and public condemnation from Cairo’s key allies, such as Washington, can be key. Erode that and it leaves all reporters vulnerable.

This has already proved to be the case for one American journalist. In 2017, The New York Times was told by a US official that Egyptian authorities were looking to arrest its Cairo correspondent over articles he had written. The US official reportedly told the paper that the Trump administration had tried to keep the warning from the correspondent and “intended to sit on the information and let the arrest be carried out”. Couple that worrying precedent with scenes of American police officers beating up cameramen on air and you have a potentially dangerous situation, and one that is spreading globally.

In short, an attack on press freedoms anywhere is an attack on press freedoms everywhere. There is a bleak future ahead.