WASHINGTON • A wave of attacks on journalists covering US protests is driving growing anxiety in the media, with some blaming President Donald Trump for creating an atmosphere that encourages violence.
Over the past week, media watchdogs have logged scores of incidents of police violence against journalists – with crews shot at, beaten, kicked, pepper-sprayed or arrested – with many incidents captured on camera.
An open letter to law enforcement endorsed by 18 press freedom organisations, including the National Press Club and Committee to Protect Journalists, called for a halt to “the deliberate and devastating targeting of journalists in the field”.
A tally by watchdog groups cited 192 press freedom violations during the latest protests, including 131 assaults, of which 108 were by police.
The tally included 31 arrests, 46 firings of rubber bullets, 30 cases of damage to equipment, 30 tear-gas incidents and 17 pepper sprayings.
Some media advocates say Mr Trump’s persistent bashing of the mainstream press has opened the door to attacks by undermining the credibility of journalists covering the protests following the police killing of a black man in Minnesota last week.
“This definitely creates an atmosphere where you are likely to see attacks on reporters,” said Professor Len Downie, a former Washington Post executive editor who is a professor at Arizona State University and who authored a study earlier this year on the Trump administration and the media. He said that while Mr Trump may not explicitly encourage violence against the press, his harsh rhetoric “deepens the divide” over credibility.
“The country is split between those who believe the President and those who believe the press,” he said.
Some stunned journalists took to Twitter to recount mistreatment, while others posted videos. “After showing my badge and yelling, ‘I am with the press’, a @RichmondPolice officer sprayed pepper spray in my face and shoved me to the ground. Had 3397 on his helmet,” tweeted radio reporter Roberto Roldan of Richmond, Virginia.
One video showed an Australian TV crew being pushed to the ground by police near the White House in Washington.
“This is alarming,” said National Press Club president Michael Freedman. “The instances I’ve seen have all included journalists playing by the rules, and we hope officials on the other side play by the same standards.”
Society of Professional Journalists president Patricia Newberry said Mr Trump’s attacks have had a “harmful effect”. Instead of attacking the media, elected officials “should speak out in defence of journalists and call on the community to protect journalists”, she added.
Media advocates said the incidents underscore an erosion of respect for the constitutional guarantees of free press in recent years.
“Reporters and photographers… don’t expect special treatment. But attacking them for news gathering is an unconstitutional attack on all Americans,” said Mr Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, the union representing thousands of journalists.