During last month’s G20 Summit in Toronto, Canada, which brought together finance ministers and central bank heads from 20 countries, more than 600 people were rounded up and arrested during peaceful public demonstrations. Among those arrested, and in some cases physically abused, by police were journalists – many of whom were clearly donning the press badges of their affiliated media outlets.
The violence and scare tactics leveled at protesters in the streets of Toronto – and the increased militarized protection these summits request – is frightening. (The security price tag for the recent summit is an estimated $1 billion, the highest ever for an international summit.) And the attacks on journalists trying to bear witness to the summit are chilling.
Jesse Freeston, a reporter with The Real News Network, was punched in the face twice by police and had some of his reporting equipment confiscated while asking police why they were detaining a deaf demonstrator. Freeston, who was able to capture what happened with his camera (see video below), believes there is no ethical difference between abusing a member of the public or a member of the press; neither should happen. But when the press is abused and intimidated, their ability to inform the public is stifled, he said in an interview:
If journalists are detained, they can’t be out reporting the stories. It’s specifically in these moments that journalists need to do their work. There’s been allegations of massive human rights abuses, and journalists who had shown to be critical were all behind bars or had been beaten or had equipment confiscated.
The day after Freeston was attacked on June 25, freelance reporter Jesse Rosenfeld was detained. Although Rosenfeld was covering the event for the Guardian, like many of the reporters covering the summit he had not been issued an official G20 press pass. When he explained to police that he was working with the British newspaper and showed them a press pass from Canada’s Alternative Media Centre, police scoffed at his credentials and refused to recognize him as a journalist. He described what happened to him on Democracy Now!: “A lot of the people I was in jail with had been beaten, and beaten quite badly – black eyes, bloody noses, and been hit all over. … [T]here were several people from the Alternative Media Centre who had been taken in for just doing their job, which was reporting from the front lines.”
Freeston explained why this is problematic: “The government deciding who are the real journalists is very close to the government deciding what’s the real news.”
At a press conference last week, Amy Miller, another journalist who was rounded up while wearing an Alternative Media Centre press pass, described the verbal abuse she and other women received while being detained. Police told women they would be “raped” and “gang banged,” and they specifically told her she would never “want to work as a journalist again to cover a protest like this after we’re done with you,” she said. Police also mocked her press pass, saying, “This accreditation means shit to us.”
“There’s been systematic attempts to de-legitimatize journalists,” Miller said of the G20 attacks on journalists. She also said that the real issues coming out of the G20 Summit have been marginalized as journalists began reporting on the massive round-ups and violence rather than the summit itself. “Everyone begins covering this very sensational and exciting action,” she said, “but it’s not allowing us to cover the structural long-term polices that are being put in place and expanded that have daily impact on our lives all over the world.”
The Toronto police and much of the mainstream media have justified the violence as a necessary reaction to a small group of activists who employed “Black Bloc” tactics, disrupting peaceful protests, destroying property and burning police cars.
Miller, however, thinks the police were sending a message to journalists: “You’re allowed to do reporting if you play it safe and the boys in blue are your friend,” she said. Miller and three other independent journalists are filing a lawsuit against the Toronto police department.
The situation in Toronto is reminiscent of the treatment of journalists during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in 2008, where dozens of journalists were arrested while trying to report on the event, including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!. Producers at Democracy Now! are currently suing the St. Paul police department.
“The more you will take journalists as targets, the less information you will have,” said Le Coz, Washington director for Reporters Without Borders. “Having such an attitude toward reporters … is showing the people that you feel like a reporter to be a threat. When you think a reporter is a threat, means you have something you are not proud of. It means you simply want to control the information.”
Freeston wants a “truth commission” created so that the city can understand what’s happened, and prosecute any guilty parties. On July 6, the Toronto police services board called for a civilian review of how police handled the G20 security.
Miller, who’s had trouble sleeping since her detention, said that journalists must continue to press for real answers. “We have to bring a light to the dark,” she said.
But it isn’t just a handful of journalists who need to investigate these recent injustices. We should all speak out to our world leaders, who are complicit in the violence toward journalists and the public every time they unleash a massive militarized police presence to suppress the press and silence dissent.