The world turned its eye to Ferguson Missouri in August after police shot an unarmed black teenager in front of witnesses. The protests that followed were met with a militarized response, including Pentagon surplus mine-resistant vehicles topped with snipers, tear-gas, assault rifles and policemen in camouflage body armor. There were conflicting claims of force being used by the protestors which proved difficult to verify. During the nine days of turmoil 24 journalists became casualties.
The list of journalists threatened, beaten, gassed, shot with wooden bullets and/or arrested was begun by Runa Sandvik of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Additional research by the Columbus Free Press identified more affected journalists. Although many of the journalists had the support of their publications individually, no American mainstream media outlet took on the issue comprehensively or editorially beyond the support of their own employees or those arrested with them.
All told 24 journalists were affected: 18 were arrested; 9 were injured by beatings rubber bullets or gas; 2 were threatened by police with being gunned down outright, 1 was threatened with being maced. Some of those injured were also arrested. Testimony by majority of the journalist claimed they had identified themselves as journalists and were deliberately targeted by police.
The 24 journalists were citizens of at least 5 countries: The United States, Turkey, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom. The citizenship of the 3 journalists from Al-Jazeera America is not clear. In an action reminiscent of the deliberate bombing of one of their journalists during the Iraq war the three were targeted by tear gas grenades while they set up their camera equipment. The police then charged and immediately dismantled the journalist's gear after they had fled the chemical weapon attack.
The journalists were from 5 television stations and 7 print outlets. Online media outlets including The Huffington Post, Brietbart, Infowars and Getty Images were also targeted. The Washington Post ran multiple stories on their employees being targeted but few other outlets felt that targeting of the news media was a story in and of itself.
The systematic targeting of journalists in Ferguson comes in a climate of greater official targeting of the press by the United State government domestically. The group Reporters Without Borders keeps a worldwide index of press freedoms and lack thereof. In the last update for 2014, America was ranked at 46 having fallen below El Salvador but remaining above Haiti.
One of the more chilling aspects of the Ferguson incidents and the Freedom of the Press Foundation's research is how little cited that research is. Only 17 media outlets have cited the group's research. Three of those media outlets, the Village Voice, the Huffington Post and the Guardian.uk, can be called major and mainstream. Taken together, American media defending the freedom of the press in America when it is not their employees under attack, is entirely represented by small town newspapers except for the Village Voice.
In news media, the lines between advocacy and documentation, as well as the line between investigation and interpretation are neither sharp, nor thin and black. They are wide, fuzzy and grey. They can be crossed with reckless abandon when the actual institution of journalism is under direct physical attack by the state.
Time will tell if the mainstream media can advocate its own physical right to exist with a clear voice. The Columbus Free Press is obligated to defend journalism as a profession and as an institution. We invite larger, better funded organizations to join us in this enterprise. Defending the freedom of the press, at least rhetorically, is the minimum requirement for the existence of a free press. A Free Press is one of the minimum requirements of a civilized nation.