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Covering U.S. Protests, Journalists Find Unexpected Threats

A police officer shouts at Associated Press videojournalist Robert Bumsted, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in New York. New York City police officers surrounded, shoved and yelled expletives at two Associated Press journalists covering protests Tuesday in…
A police officer shouts at Associated Press videojournalist Robert Bumsted, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in New York. New York City police officers surrounded, shoved and yelled expletives at two Associated Press journalists covering protests Tuesday in…

Khrystyna Shevchenko had her camera on Santa Monica looters, as any good video journalist would. So she never saw it coming.

“All of a sudden, I felt that punch in my temple area of my head,” she said, adding that she blacked out for a couple of seconds.

When she came to, Shevchenko instinctively yelled, “I’m press.”

Then she began to notice the pain in her foot. Her camera gear had toppled, breaking three toes.

Shevchenko has reported from conflict zones in Ukraine, and covered protests including the mass Maidan demonstrations sparked when then-President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an agreement bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union. She had never been attacked — until the incident in downtown Santa Monica, California, on May 31.

She is one of a handful reporters working for Voice of America and its language services who came away from George Floyd protest coverage with stories of being treated roughly by police or demonstrators.

“It was surprising for me that it happened with me here in America,” said Shevchenko, who was on assignment for VOA’s Ukrainian service.

It’s not just Voice of America journalists. The U.S. Press Freedom tracker is investigating more than 300 press freedom incidents, including nearly 50 arrests, 192 assaults nearly all allegedly by police, and more than 40 cases of equipment or newsrooms being damaged.

“I worked in Ukraine during [the] revolution and war, and I was in the Ukraine, doing some documentaries in the gray zone of the war,” she said, referring to areas just behind a conflict’s front line. But the “first time I was injured, it happened here in Santa Monica."

The attacker had said he wanted to take her camera, witnesses told her.

Shevchenko said she was treated for her injuries in an ambulance and then went home to file her story.

“Society has the right to know truth, and who are the messengers of the truth?” she asked. “Journalists.”

“We cover all aspects [of protests] and that's the way that people can know. And it's unacceptable that someone attacks journalists, because it's their work.”

Jason Patinkin, a VOA journalist hit by a projectile as police in the direction of press and protesters in Washington on May 31, described the treatment of the press as “disturbing.”

“I’ve covered lots of places where there’s been conflict and civil unrest. I’ve seen a lot of disproportionate response and I think that a lot of what the police around the White House have been doing certainly qualifies as both disproportionate and indiscriminate,” he said.

Police had cleared protesters and media after people threw water bottles, fireworks, and stones.

The District of Columbia metro force did not respond to VOA’s email for comment. A spokesperson for the Park Service police said earlier this week there was no way to know if its officers were involved. The department did not respond to a follow-up call on June 5. Both are policing protests.

VOA Journalist Says Police Fired Toward Press, Protesters in DC
Jason Patinkin was struck when police fired a projectile during George Floyd protests near the White House

Attacks on the media, Patinkin said, are “hugely damaging” because they get in the way of delivering information when the public needs it most.

Other journalists said covering the protests or seeing media harassed and attacked reminded them of assignments overseas.

“Becoming a target of either police or protesters is not something new to me,” said Mehtap Yilmaz, from VOA’s Turkish service. “During my coverage of the Iraqi invasion in 2003, I often became a target for both protesters and the local security forces.”

“But it was both surprising and anxious for me to encounter the incidents I witnessed as journalists in America for the last three days during protests in Washington,” said Yilmaz.

On May 31, Yilmaz, camera operator Tezcan Taskiran and a second video journalist, Uzeyir Yanar, were covering demonstrators at the middle entrance to St. John’s Church, in Lafayette Square near the White House, when police suddenly charged at about 10.30 p.m.

Yilmaz said police raised batons toward them as officers forcibly moved the crew and others, despite the VOA team identifying themselves as news media.

“There was a harsh intervention of the police against journalists during the protests. Although we showed our press cards, we were drastically removed from the protests in front of the White House,” Yilmaz said.

Pir Shah, from VOA’s Deewa Pashto service, said demonstrations in the capital reminded him of lawyers’ protests in Pakistan.

“It was surprising to see protesters being pepper-sprayed and journalists attacked by the police and the protesters,” he said.

“[In] Pakistan, protests can get violent pretty quick, and the police and paramilitary forces do not hesitate much to use force against protesters and the journalists who cover those protests.”

“[But] protests and coverage of them is essential for the survival of a democratic system,” Shah said.

Navbahor Imamova, from the VOA Uzbek Service, said she hadn’t experienced mistreatment during her coverage, and that it was critical for journalists to be on the front lines, especially when reporting for an overseas audience.

“I have covered protests for VOA since the mid-2000s. It has been a learning experience and a professional test each time. How do you tell the story? You have to stay accurate and balanced while presenting a set of events where emotions run high and every expression is dramatic,” she said.

“My job is to deliver these stories to an audience that has very limited experience with freedom of speech, freedom of expression, or demonstrating against the system,” Imamova said. “So, we must cover these or any protests and help people understand relevant factors.”

The unpredictable nature of protests and civil unrest is not new for Eva Mazrieva, from VOA’s Indonesia service. She has covered demonstrations and riots in Indonesia and East Timor.

While reporting on protests in East Timor in 1999, she had to be evacuated by military aircraft with only her laptop and camera after militias ransacked the homes of media workers.

“As a journalist who grew up during Indonesia's New Order era, under the authoritarian regime of President Suharto, and who has been covering demonstrations and riots for years before coming to the U.S., I (was) shocked and horrified when I see the same incidents … here,” she said.

“I understand that being a ‘collateral damage’ in covering demonstrations and riots, is unavoidable,” she said. “But being intentionally targeted with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets, even after they had displayed press ID, is a direct violation of press freedom.”

“It's essential for us not to be silenced, harassed or attacked in doing our job,” Mazrieva said.

Mony Say, who has been covering the events in Washington for Cambodian viewers, said he was also “taken aback” by the assaults on journalists from police and protesters both.

While reporting in Cambodia, Say has been verbally harassed and threatened. “I remember a time when I got stuck in between angry protesters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, and military police and soldiers carrying AK-47s,” he said.

“Journalists should be able to perform their duty freely without even being harassed in any form, let alone attacked,” said Say, who works in VOA’s Khmer service.

Khemara Sok, also from VOA’s Khmer service, said the role of journalists is “to reveal the full truth [and] let the public understand what is happening.”

“Without real information, people and the whole society would have (the) wrong debate on issues, and democracy will (be) in danger, he said. “Real information kills fake news and serves the public interest.”