Why Ferguson Police Are Arresting Journalists

As the number of journalists arrested or harassed in Ferguson rises, there's debate in the media over whether police are targeting reporters.

Why Ferguson Police Are Arresting Journalists
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"Here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground."

That was President Obama the day after two journalists were arrested while covering protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Since that day, stories of journalists being arrested or otherwise caught up in the clashes between police and protestors have been pouring in.

Scott Olson, the photographer responsible for one of the most iconic images to come out of the protests so far, was arrested Monday.

Also Monday, two reporters working for a German newspaper were arrested. One of them, a veteran who has reported from Gaza, Iraq and China, said Ferguson was the first place he'd been arrested and "treated rudely by the police." 

And a reporter for The Telegraph was arrested Sunday along with reporters from Sports Illustrated and Financial Times. They were all released less than ten minutes later. 

According to Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, it's a matter of not being able to tell who's a reporter and who's not.

"We're not sure who's a journalist and who's not. And yes if I see someone with a $50,000 camera on his shoulder I'm pretty sure. But some journalists are walking around and all you have is a cell phone because you're from a small media outlet."

A KMOV reporter from St. Louis pointed out a further wrinkle Monday night, saying, "The role of 'citizen journalists' has been interesting to watch in Ferguson. An unfamiliar topic to many cops I've talked to."

Some journalists have their own theories, though: like that the police are intentionally targeting reporters.

Max Fisher at Vox says police arrest journalists in order to make a political statement about their authority, adding, "Intimidation of journalists in Ferguson is not just coming from the occasional hotheaded cop."

But there are also those, like a writer for Hot Air, who say the situation is more complicated than that, accusing some journalists of trying to get arrested for attention. "In many ways, the media appears to believe that it is an active participant in the events in Missouri."

Legally, at least, the police seem to be within their rights. A general counsel for the National Photographers Press Association told The Poynter Institute that while reporters are protected by the First Amendment, police can order journalists to move away from a dangerous area, and not complying with the order could lead to an arrest.

Though he also notes that police can't order the media to leave completely, saying “That restricts far more speech and free press than is necessary to achieve a government purpose.”

That's something that the 48 news organizations that penned a letter to the Ferguson police forces apparently think has been happening — citing their concern for journalistic freedom and asking for increased transparency from law enforcement.