Donald Trump's 'demonisation' of media blamed as journalists are arrested and injured in George Floyd protests

Josie Ensor
Demonstrators paint on the CNN logo during a protest, in Atlanta, in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. - AP

Dozens of  journalists have been arrested, attacked or injured, some deliberately, while covering the protests across America, as press freedom groups say President Trump’s “demonisation” of the media is partly to blame.

Reporters have been shot by rubber bullets, exposed to tear gas and pepper spray, beaten, threatened and intimidated while reporting on demonstrations over the killing by Minneapolis police officers of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, as they arrested him on May 25.

The investigative journalism website Bellingcat has noted more than 90 incidents where journalists were targeted since the protests began last Wednesday night. 

In some, it appears reporters were caught in the crossfire, but in other more disturbing cases members of the media had clearly identified themselves to police and been attacked anyway.

While covering the first night of the protests in Minnesota, a black CNN reporter was arrested while live on air. Tim Walz, Minnesota’s governor, apologised at a news conference and said he takes "full responsibility" for the incident.

Australian 9News US correspondent Tim Arvier was later detained by police at gunpoint in the city. 

Late Sunday, Des Moines police arrested reporter Andrea Sahouri, of the Des Moines Register, for failure to disperse while she was covering a demonstration at a local shopping centre that had turned violent.

In a video apparently recorded in a police transport vehicle and then posted on Twitter, Ms Sahouri said officers sprayed her in the face with pepper spray after she identified herself as a member of the media. "I'm press. I'm press. I'm press," she said she told police. 

In Las Vegas, freelance photojournalist Bridget Bennett was arrested for “failure to disperse” and held overnight while working on assignment for AFP. 

Ellen Schmidt, a photojournalist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was also arrested and held overnight in Las Vegas. 

Meanwhile, a photographer who has done freelance assignments for The Telegraph was detained while reporting in Brooklyn, New York.

“I said I was press. They just didn't seem to care,”  he said. “I get that in the heat of the moment you might get pushed or grabbed, but as soon as you say that you're press, it normally stops there but not this time."

In New York, this reporter has been told to go home by police after identifying herself as a reporter. “I don’t care if you’re a journalist,” the NYPD officer said, “you need to go home now.”

New York’s Attorney General has been encouraging journalists who have experienced problems with police to get in touch with her office, saying that it was “unacceptable”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it is investigating reports of attacks and arrests in Louisville, Kentucky,  Las Vegas, Atlanta and Washington.

“Targeted attacks on journalists, media crews and news organisations covering the demonstrations show a complete disregard for their critical role in documenting issues of public interest and are an unacceptable attempt to intimidate them,” said Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director of the CPJ

“Authorities in cities across the US need to instruct police not to target  journalists and ensure they can report safely on the protests without fear of injury or retaliation.”

Reporters with Borders (RSF) say the attacks are fuelled by years of Mr Trump’s demonisation of the media.

“President Trump's demonisation of the media for years has now come to fruition, with both the police and protesters targeting clearly identified journalists with violence and arrests,” said Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary general. 

“It has long been obvious that this demonisation would lead to physical violence. RSF has warned about the consequences of this blatant hostility towards the media, and we are now witnessing an unprecedented outbreak of violence against journalists in the US,” Mr Deloire added. 

Mr Trump has verbally attacked the media throughout his term. Saturday afternoon, he tweeted a message that "Fake News is the Enemy of the People." Sunday, he accused the media of people "truly bad people" who were "doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy."

The US is ranked 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index

Journalists have also been harassed and attacked by demonstrators.

In Pittsburgh, Ian Smith - a photojournalist for KDKA TV - posted to Twitter that he had been “attacked by protestors downtown by the arena. They stomped and kicked me. I’m bruised and bloody but alive. My camera was destroyed. Another group of protesters pulled me out and saved my life.”

A CNN sign was graffitied on at the channel’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, as demonstrators tried to storm the building.

Meanwhile, a Fox News crew was booed out of the crowd in Minnesota last week.