PUBLIC anger that erupted late last month over the death of George Floyd, who died after a policeman put his knee on the African American man’s neck for a prolonged period during an arrest, has refused to subside. While many demonstrations have been peaceful, others have descended into riots, looting and arson, with a growing number of American cities rocked by the unrest. Unfortunately, the reaction by the American leadership, particularly the incumbent of the White House, has left a lot to be desired, and has, in fact, fanned the flames. What has been particularly appalling is the apparently deliberate targeting of mediapersons covering the events. Perhaps the most shocking event witnessed in this connection was the arrest, on live TV, of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and members of his team covering protests in Minneapolis. Troopers in full riot gear handcuffed Mr Jimenez as he asked them why he was under arrest, in a scene straight out of a George Orwell novel. But this has hardly been the only incident of its kind. Activists say mediapersons have been attacked by law enforcers over 100 times since May 28, with some facing rubber bullets and pepper spray despite clearly identifying themselves as members of the press. As the International Press Institute has noted, “The growing list of incidents reveals a chilling pattern in which reporters were targeted by police.” One MSNBC reporter recalled, when he told police that he was a mediaperson, the response he got was: “We don’t care.”
Such behaviour is usually reported from authoritarian states that clamp down on journalists with impunity, and are dragged over the coals by the US and other Western states for their animosity towards press freedom. However, in a sign of the times, it seems that such despicable ways are fast becoming the new normal in the US, thanks largely to the combative nature of the American president. While there is no justification for violence, which in fact dishonours the memory of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, a much darker picture is emerging from the protests in America. In a country where free speech is a constitutional guarantee, the long arm of the law is instead cracking down on those whose job it is to report the facts. The authorities in the US must ensure that journalists are allowed to work freely, and not harassed and attacked by those in uniform.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2020