Behind The Curtain: Press Freedom on Life Support

When Mayor Bloomberg raided Zuccotti Park on November 15 he used a long popular tactic, removing all media and press from documenting the eviction and its associated arrests.  Media helicopters were forced out of the air, police stopped those with official press passes from entering the area and independent journalists were arrested.

Still, there were many people able to film and clips began popping up on youtube within minutes.  Even more valuable, livestreaming began to take off.  Now it didn’t matter if the police confiscated a camera and erased the pictures.  Livestreaming documented every second to the world as it occurred.

But don’t think that this means the police won’t do everything they can to black out coverage of their activities.  In Houston on Monday the police used a new method of restricting press freedom.  When a group protesting at the Port of Houston laid on the ground, ready and willing to be peacefully arrested in an act of civil disobedience, the Houston police brought in a large forensic tent to cover the protestors, block all cameras and all witness of the arrests.

This tent is normally used when the police have discovered a dead body and wish to ensure the privacy of the deceased.  The purpose here is not so noble.  It is to ensure there are no witnesses to the police activities.  After spending hours in jail, the felony charges were dropped.  This is no surprise.  In many arrests all over the country people are rounded up and thrown into jail only to be released the next day.  Those arrests are meant to intimidate and make others wary of protest.

On the same day, in NYC, the the police specifically targeted the press.  OWS held a flashmob at Brookfield Properties’ Winter Garden.  There were 17 people arrested and according to Kevin Kozstola at FLD, “Those seventeen people each have something in common: they all are somehow involved with media.”  The arrests included OWS livestreamers Justin Wedes and Lorenzo as well as FAIR journalist John Knefel.  In fact, every one of the 17 were doing media at the event.

In New York the location was too large for a tent to cover, so they arrested those filming and documenting the event.  What is next?  The militarized arm of the 1% has realized they don’t want the public to see their actions, whether it is pepper spray, batons, harassment, threats or worse.  What will they do next to ensure there is no documentation of their actions?

Maybe we can see a clue in this report on how the Israeli military cracked down on press while they prevented humanitarian aid and construction materials from reaching the Gaza Strip in a raid that resulted in the death of 9 humanitarian activists.

In May 2010, when the “Free Gaza” flotilla approached Israel’s territorial waters, the military announced that it would jam all electronic transmissions in the waters surrounding the ships so as to prevent reports from reaching international networks, for the sake of preserving the country’s image. During the takeover of the ships, the infringement on freedom of the press continued. According to the Assistant to the UN Secretary-General on Political Affairs, the Israeli military confiscated all the material recorded and filmed by the journalists who were on board. Several months later, when another ship was approaching the Gaza Strip, the military confiscated the equipment that Eli Oshrov – the only Israeli journalist aboard the Irene ship – used to document the events, including his camera, microphone, and cellular phone.


8 comments on “Behind The Curtain: Press Freedom on Life Support

  1. ES says:

    Although it is clear the press has been widely censored, and worse, during protests and arrests throughout the country (and the press itself has been less than objective in its reporting), my take on the protective tent used in Houston was for fire prevention. The video clearly shows fire service personnel putting the tent in place, not police. The protesters had cuffed themselves together, so the fire department was called in to cut through the steel links. Texas has had a devastating fire season this year, so the fire dept. used the tent to prevent sparks from igniting fires in the dry grass at the edges of the road, or it was used to protect the eyes of the many people watching the situation.

    • Ronnie says:

      There have been conflicting reports and we may never know what prompted this action. Houston PD spokesman John Cannon said the fire department wanted to prevent sparks, but Houston Fire Department Chief Rick Flanagan claimed “They did it so they could make sure they had security, and they just took away the fact of observation. It was just making sure they could do their job without distraction.”

      The spark claim has been challenged, since the blade normally used to cut PVC pipes does not create any sparks. And the “distraction” issue does not meet the freedom of press burdens of the first amendment.

      If there were safety concerns (which I am unclear they are actually claiming since they mention security which seems to imply security of the FD personnel and this is no different than any other similar civil disobedience arrest), then they should have at least allowed an NLG legal observer to quietly witness the activity, but this also was prevented. In the end, the lack of transparency and mixed messages leads us all to guess and ponder. When the HPD and HFD provide two entirely different reason we have no choice but to question how this decision was made and what the motivation was for it.

      Thanks for your feedback, it is always valuable to look at these instances more closely and these are questions that need to be answered, though I expect we won’t hear much more beyond what has already been released.

      • ES says:

        Chief Flanagan in that quote, which I do not have the luxury of reading/hearing in full context, implies “they” are the fire crew handling the equipment, so it would be the fire crew wanting to work without being watched. It still implies a safety concern. It would be horrible if one of those guys accidentally injured himself, another crew member, or a protestor – or even a cop – because of a nervous twitch. I’ve worked a lot with fire fighters and they have safety incorporated into their blood. I give the fire crew the benefit of the doubt – they don’t know if someone is going to start throwing rocks or bottles, and given the media hype of protestors throwing rocks and bottles (or feces) it would not be surprising if the fire crew’s only experience with Occupy was isolated to skewed media coverage.

        • Ronnie says:

          Sorry for not including the link to Chief Flanagan’s quote that appeared in the Houston Chronicle. The article doesn’t contextualize his quote much and I couldn’t find more information on it.

          I’m not sure it really clears anything up, but your point is a good one. I think the desire to ensure they were not distracted while using a high speed saw is more valid and likely than the spark claim from the PD. It could have been pure safety concern and I believe FD departments are some of the most dedicated and brave people in public service, so I certainly don’t want to be too harsh on the FD.

  2. ES says:

    Personally, I am surprised Occupy folks miss the irony of the police bringing a tent to a protest.

  3. Brent C. says:

    Even if fire prevention was not a plausible rationale I don’t have a problem with the tenting. As I understand it, the occupiers were acting illegally in trespassing past the time they were ordered out. If they had peacefully cooperated with the arrest, like for example the Boston occupiers did, I assume there would be no tenting. Instead, they sought to draw out the arrest process, make it more dramatic, and call more attention to it — for example, by TV helicopters shooting the spectacle — by handcuffing themselves together.

    Such tactics ought to backfire on protesters. Authorities ought to be able to shroud the arrest process so that the tactics backfire, and there’s very little media coverage of the protesters. To do otherwise is to reward protesters for ridiculously obstructionist tactics. I have no problem with protesters who commit civil disobedience and then peacefully cooperate with an arrest; such protesters should be treated with respect, and media should be allowed to cover the arrests. However, I do agree there’s room for concern if legal observers are not allowed to watch — in that event, authorities need to video everything so there’s a record of what was done behind the scenes. I assume that was done here, only to protect the police against false claims of abuse.

    Unlike some of the posts on this site, I do think this post called attention to a legitimate issue; I just differ on the outcome, based on my understanding of the facts.

    • Ronnie says:

      The act of using “lockboxes” has been a tactic of civil disobedience for some time. It is exactly as you said, an act meant to draw more attention to the issue being protested. I would argue that it should draw more attention, or at least it should draw whatever attention the press and people feel it deserves. By using a “lockbox” the protestors show an increased commitment to their cause by willingly putting themselves at risk of harm.

      If their motivation for hiding the activity is to diminish the attention given the protest it seems they are taking a political position. The police should have one responsibility, to enforce the law. That said, this is a complex issue and I myself am still trying to understand the many nuances that surround it.

      I will say one thing, if their purpose was to diminish the attention given these protestors they have not succeeded. The tent ended up being, in my opinion, a bigger story than open removal would have been.

      Thanks for all these excellent posts and questions, discussing issues like these are what makes us all better informed.

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