Journalists Covering Protests Face Growing Violence

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Journalists’ ability to cover breaking news is under threat in a number of key countries, ranging from Brazil’s more open media landscape to the contested spaces of Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine, and Venezuela’s repressive environment. Those who attempt to report on protest movements in particular risk physical harassment, detention, and even reprisal attacks designed to prevent them from documenting these important stories.

It is telling that of the 23 indicators assessed in Freedom House’s just-released report Freedom of the Press 2014, the category concerning the physical ability of journalists to cover the news suffered one of the largest score declines of the year.

Special protection for members of the press can be difficult to uphold when demonstrations turn violent, and it has become even more challenging as the boundaries between accredited journalists, citizen journalists, and activists increasingly blur. In many cases, however, reporters are not just caught up in the melee, but singled out for attack by police or protesters.

The following examples illustrate the challenges faced by journalists working amid social unrest and government crackdowns.

Brazil:

Scores of journalists have been arrested, attacked, and harassed since June 2013 while attempting to document the sometimes violent protests that erupted over transportation fare hikes, corruption, and high public spending for the 2014 World Cup. According to the local press freedom group ABRAJI, at least 114 journalists were attacked during protests—70 deliberately—during 2013 by either the police or protesters. In February 2014, television cameraman Santiago Ilídio Andrade was hit in the head by a flare that was allegedly fired by protesters at the police, becoming the first journalist to die in the Brazilian protests.

Egypt:

Journalist Mayada Ashraf, who was killed while covering clashes between the police and Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt.

Photo Credit: Youm7

Three journalists were among hundreds of people killed beginning on August 14, when security forces, using tear gas and live ammunition, raided sit-ins organized by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Many other reporters and photographers—particularly those from foreign news outlets, who were accused of presenting a biased view of events—were injured, harassed, or detained during these operations. Of the six journalists killed in Egypt during 2013, five died while covering protests. This trend has continued into 2014. In March, 22-year-old journalist Mayada Ashraf was shot in the head as she covered clashes between the police and Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo.

Turkey:

Photo Credit: Bianet

As the small Gezi Park protests that began in May 2013 exploded into huge antigovernment demonstrations, the authorities employed numerous methods to control press coverage. Journalists at the scene were deliberately targeted, suffering detentions, beatings, and injuries from tear gas canisters fired at them by police. Meanwhile, at least 59 reporters and columnists were fired or forced to resign in retribution for their coverage of the protests. A similar pattern was apparent in December, as more protests erupted over corruption scandals implicating Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates.

Ukraine:

The country experienced a dramatic increase in harassment and violence against both local and international journalists—including cases of reporters being specifically targeted by the police and allied thugs—as they covered the Euromaidan protests that began in November 2013. In a single incident on December 1, more than 50 journalists were assaulted by riot police while reporting on the protests. In February 2014, just days before embattled president Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital, masked attackers murdered journalist Vyacheslav Veremiy after he left work. More than two dozen people were killed the same night as police attacked the main protest area in a final effort to disperse the demonstrators.

Venezuela:

Photo Credit: andresAzp

Local media watchdog Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela (IPYS) reported 219 incidents of attacks and aggression against journalists in 2013, many of them in the context of public protests or election-related events. As frustration with a collapsing economy and soaring crime rates erupted into large-scale street protests in February 2014, the government stepped up its efforts to crack down on the media. The authorities have assaulted and detained journalists covering the demonstrations—even though they clearly identified themselves—and attempted to prevent traditional and social media outlets from spreading vital information.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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