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Accreditation disputes at center of US arrests

Several journalists have been arrested for not having proper accreditation at Occupy Oakland protests like this one. (Reuters/Stephen Lam)

The issue of press accreditation continues to reverberate. In November, when the Occupy movement came into conflict with law enforcement across the country and at least 20 journalists covering the events were arrested, CPJ reported that disputes over press accreditation were at the center of many of those arrests. Last week, credentials played a role in the arrests of journalists not only at tumultuous Occupy demonstrations in Oakland but also inside the more hushed chambers of Capitol Hill.

The reporters and photographers who were rounded up along with protesters last year for demonstrating in allegedly unauthorized places found that their appeals as members of the press often fell on deaf ears. Across the country, police repeatedly refused to acknowledge as a journalist anyone who did not have what they considered to be official accreditation, leaving freelancers and new media journalists particularly vulnerable, CPJ reported.

At least six journalists found themselves in the same situation on January 28, when they were arrested during violent clashes between Occupy demonstrators and Oakland police officers in California. It was the largest roundup of journalists covering the Occupy movement since 10 were detained while reporting on the eviction from Zuccotti Park in New York on November 15. The journalists in Oakland were caught up in the mass arrests of several hundred demonstrators who were corralled by police officers outside a YMCA building, according to press reports.

For Susie Cagle, the scenario was familiar. The freelance journalist and cartoonist was arrested back on November 3, and after police officers belittled her press pass, was charged with "presence at the scene of a riot." After pressure by press freedom groups, the charges were dropped and Cagle said she was granted an official police press pass that was valid through the end of 2011. Cagle wrote in the Guardian that she was wearing the expired press pass, along with valid accreditations from the Guild Freelancers, when she was arrested on January 28. Because the police-approved pass had expired, she wrote, the arresting officer told her, "You're not press tonight." After being held for around 40 minutes, she was released without charge.

Yael Chanoff, a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, was not so lucky. The journalist wrote in the Bay Guardian that she was arrested, transported with other protesters to a county jail, and held for 20 hours. Chanoff had been hired by the Bay Guardian three weeks earlier and didn't have a police press pass, though she said she showed the police a business card and identification. She was charged with failure to leave the scene of a riot and has an arraignment scheduled for March 5.

Gavin Aronsen, an editorial fellow at Mother Jones magazine, reported that the police ignored his press credentials and transported him to a jail, where he was held in a cell for approximately one hour. Arresting officers told Kristin Hanes, a reporter with KGO radio, that her press credentials were only valid for San Francisco, not Oakland, and held in her custody on the scene for approximately 30 minutes, KGO reported. Vivian Ho, a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle, posted on twitter that she was cuffed in zip-ties along with the other journalists, but convinced the police officers to release her shortly thereafter. Ho also had San Francisco police-approved credentials, according to Mother Jones. John C. Osborn of the weekly East Bay Express reported that he was arrested because he did not have police-accredited credentials and was held in custody for an hour. None of these journalists were charged.

On the other side of the country, the validity of credential rules and how they are enforced was called into question with the arrest of filmmaker Josh Fox on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. As The New York Times reported, Fox was seeking to film a congressional session on the natural gas drilling technique known as "fracking" for a follow-up to his Academy Award-nominated documentary "Gasland," which was highly critical of the process. A subcommittee of the House Science Committee scheduled a hearing at the last moment to discuss an EPA report that found fracking had caused water contamination in the city of Pavillion, Wyoming, a town that was featured in Fox's film. According to the Times, Fox said his appeals for accreditation were not answered, but he decided to attend the session with a small camera crew nonetheless. When Fox refused to stop filming the session, he was arrested.

In a press release after the hearing, the Committee said "Section 9(j) of the Committee's rules expressly states that 'Personnel providing coverage by the television and radio media shall be currently accredited to the Radio and Television Correspondents' Galleries.'" Democratic Representatives Brad Miller and Jerry Nadler told The Huffington Post, however, that it is extremely uncommon to turn away journalists or filmmakers who want to film hearings, which are open to the public. Miller tried to halt the session to allow Fox to stay, calling for a motion to allow "all of god's children" to film the hearing, according to Politico. Republican congress members, led by subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris, voted against it and capitol police led the filmmaker away in handcuffs. As Fox pointed out to The Huffington Post, there was no such censuring of the camera phones of congressional aides, some of whom filmed the arrest as can be seen here.

Fox, who was released shortly thereafter, was charged with unlawful entry and is scheduled to appear in court February 15. The filmmaker wrote in a statement: "As a filmmaker and journalist I have covered hundreds of public hearings, including Congressional hearings. It is my understanding that public speech is allowed to be filmed. Congress should be no exception."

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