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If police in Ferguson treat journalists like this, imagine how they treat residents

Scott Olson

It looked at first like police in Ferguson, Missouri, were lashing out at journalists only incidentally. Everyone in their path seemed to be at risk of being teargassed, arrested without charge, or having assault rifles pointed at them without warning — so naturally the reporters milling around town were at similar risk. Increasingly, though, it is becoming clear that police in Ferguson are targeting journalists, using intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and physical force.

This has a much deeper and more damaging effect than just suppressing media coverage. Arresting and intimidating journalists are inherently political acts, guaranteed by design to generate attention. Much as when it's done in far-away conflict zones and authoritarian states, it's about making a statement. It's about demonstrating, to ordinary citizens even more than to journalists, that police believe they can exercise absolute control over the streets and anyone in them.

That police in Ferguson are targeting journalists so openly and aggressively is an appalling affront to basic media freedoms, but it is far scarier for what it suggests about how the police treat everyone else — and should tell us much about why Ferguson's residents are so fed up. When police in Ferguson are willing to rough up and arbitrarily arrest a Washington Post reporter just for being in a McDonald's, you have to wonder how those police treat the local citizens, who don't have the shield of a press pass.

Intimidation of journalists is becoming routine in Ferguson

Al Jazeera journalists flee from their equipment after it is teargassed by police (Scott Olson/Getty)

On Wednesday, police in Ferguson roughed up and arrested Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post for failing to exit a McDonalds. According to Lowery's Twitter account, the two were "assaulted and arrested" because "officers decided we weren't leaving McDonalds quickly enough, shouldn't have been taping them." They were later released, but the fact of their arrest was enough to show how police would treat journalists in Ferguson.

Since those first arrests, police actions against journalists in Ferguson have escalated in severity and frequency.

Getty photographer Scott Olson, who's been in Ferguson all week, was arrested on Monday and stuffed into the back of a police van for no clearly discernible reason. "He was literally just across the street from the media area. Not a good sign for media access tonight," Reilly tweeted.

CNN's Don Lemon was broadcasting live from one of the town's designated protest areas when a police officer began shoving him in an attempt to physically force him to leave the area:

An Al Jazeera America TV crew, set up to safely shoot on the sidelines of a recent police deployment, had to abandon their equipment when police fired tear gas at them. After they ran, police walked over and dismantled the set-up, turning over the equipment.

Reporters have been shouted at by police, had heavy weapons pointed at them, been subjected to military-law style curfews, and been ordered to confine themselves to small, set areas when outdoors. Journalists who leave these corralled zones or venture outside during the curfew — who attempt to walk down a public suburban street in America, in other words — are threatened with arrest.

"If you walk about 100 feet from OK'ed press area you find yourself lit up by a spotlight and a squad of police on hair trigger," MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted recently from Ferguson. Later that night, as Hayes' team filmed the protests, police told them, "Media do not pass us. You're getting maced next time you pass us."

CNN reporters in Ferguson apparently feel so physically threatened, either by police or protesters or both, that they emptied a local military surplus store of its helmets.

The problem is so bad that the ACLU sued Ferguson to stop harassing reporters — and won

Police in Ferguson arrest Getty photographer Scott Olson (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Mustafa Hussein is a local journalist from KARG Argus radio who has spent the past week livestreaming video from the ground in Ferguson, sometimes to tens of thousands of Web viewers. Police have tried to block him from reporting so frequently that, on Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was suing the town and the county, seeking a court order from a judge telling police that they cannot bar journalists from reporting.

On Thursday, the ACLU got what they wanted: a court agreement, signed by the city and the county and the Missouri Highway Patrol chief, stating: "Parties acknowledge and agree that the media and members of the public have a right to record public events without abridgment unless it obstructs the activity or threatens the safety of others, or physically interferes with the ability of law enforcement officers to perform their duties."

Even more astounding than the fact that this was necessary is the fact that it was so quickly ignored.

On Sunday, a police officer appeared to threaten to shoot Hussein for reporting, as he was recording. The video, at the time streaming to tens of thousands of viewers, captured the officer shouting in a wildly aggressive tone what sounded like, "Get the fuck out of here and get that light off, or you're getting shot with this."

There's too much continuity between arrests for it to be disconnected

Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson in Ferguson (Scott Olson/Getty)

Intimidation of journalists in Ferguson is not just coming from the occasional hotheaded cop.

On Sunday night, three days after citizens of Ferguson marched alongside Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, in gratitude for Johnson taking over the heavy-handed police presence, and mere hours after Johnson gave an emotional speech apologizing for the police violence and promising its end, the savior of Ferguson ordered three journalists arrested for witnessing an apparently unprompted police crackdown on protesters.

Shortly after police in Ferguson lobbed tear gas and fired high-tech noise cannons at protesters, three reporters from major outlets attempted to walk down the street to talk to the protesters. Police approached them and ordered them to leave the area. Though the police had no legal authority to do this — it was a public street with no imminent danger — the reporters, one of them a veteran war correspondent, had perhaps heard enough reports of police in Ferguson intimidating and arresting journalists to know they should leave.

"Capt Johnson said walk away or be arrested. I started walking away. They followed and arrested us," one of the reporters, Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated, tweeted. Another of the reporters posted a video clip showing Johnson ordering that the journalists be arrested and cuffed.

Their zip-cord cuffs were cut minutes later, but Johnson's arrests were nonetheless a success. The three reporters, and others in the area, now understood that crossing the police's ever-tightening list of restrictions on journalists, stated and unstated, no matter how arbitrary or unlawful, came with personal, bodily risk. And the police under Johnson's command saw very clearly how they were to treat the media.

The police crackdown on journalists in Ferguson has become so severe that President Obama, in public comments, had to remind police that media freedom is protected in the United States.

"Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their job and report to the American people what they see on the ground," he said. This would be banal statement if uttered about China or Russia; that the American president had to say it about his own country is a staggering sign of how badly the situation has turned.

You don't arrest reporters just to stifle journalism — you do it to make a statement

Press freedom organizations, typically focused on abuses halfway around the world, have condemned the police behavior in Ferguson. The Committee to Protect Journalists warned that authorities were curbing journalists' "right to work freely on the streets of any American city." Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called the police actions "unwarranted" and "unthinkable."

The parallels between Ferguson and the harassment of journalists abroad are disturbing. Consider some of these recent cases from countries we think of, rightly, as despotic and hostile to the press.

In eastern Ukraine this April, Russia-backed rebels kidnapped a Vice News reporter who had been asking to check the passports of separatists, a number of whom were actually Russian citizens, almost certainly to intimidate him and others not to pursue such stories.

In Egypt in June, the government sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists, including an Australian and a Canadian citizen, to several years in prison on transparently trumped-up charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and "reporting false news." The case is widely understood to be a warning to other journalists in Egypt: don't report news that the government dislikes, especially about the Muslim Brotherhood, or we will put you in jail for years — Western citizenship be damned.

In July, Iranian plainclothes security forces stormed the home of Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian, arresting him, his wife, and two others. Analysts generally agree the arrest was likely instigated by anti-Western hard-liners within the Iranian government, perhaps from the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Their goal was almost certainly not to muzzle Rezaian, but to undermine moderate government factions, especially the president who is engaged in nuclear talks with Western countries, and to maintain what they see as a shadow war with the West.

What these cases have in common, like many others in conflict zones and authoritarian states, is that the purpose of arresting journalists is about much more than just putting those specific reporters in prison. The arrests have much larger, political goal, in which intimidating reporters is a tool for influencing non-journalists as well.

This is most alarming for what it says about how police treat non-journalists

Protesters in Ferguson hold their arms up, a symbol of protest against police abuses (Joe Raedle/Getty)

The thinking behind intimidation of journalists in Ferguson is certainly less sophisticated and less carefully planned. But there are political ramifications too clear and powerful to be dismissed as incidental, just as there are with the police's decision to demonstrate as much force as possible, to present themselves as an occupying army that sees the Ferguson community as an enemy to be suppressed.

By forcing reporters off of streets with curfews, assaulting or threatening them when they wander out of tiny designated zones, and arresting them seemingly arbitrarily, police are doing much more than suppressing media coverage of their crackdowns. The police are signaling that they exercise total control over every inch of public space in Ferguson and believe they have the authority to treat people in that space however they wish. That message comes through clearly not just to the reporters, but to their vast audiences in Ferguson and beyond it.

Journalists can at times be the canary in the coal mine for situations when basic order and public safety have broken down. It is unfair and unjust that a reporter from a well-known outlet can expect better treatment, and a far greater degree of physical security, than can other people in just about any situation in America or abroad. So if this is how police in Ferguson are treating journalists, just imagine how they treat local residents.

When a police officer is willing to run up to a video journalist and shout, "Get the fuck out of here ... or you're getting shot with this," knowing this will be heard by the journalist's viewers, you have to wonder how that officer behaves when the cameras aren't running, how he talks to the local citizens he is supposed to be protecting.

That is what makes Ferguson's treatment of journalists truly alarming. It is part and parcel of the police's treatment of regular citizens, an extension of their militarized tactics and their practice of treating the community as a hostile force to be controlled. When we see police cracking down on journalists, we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of Ferguson police abuses, and that should help us understand why Ferguson's residents are protesting.