Concerns raised as FBI agents use pepper spray on reporters

New York, March 27, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the use of pepper spray by U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents against journalists covering an FBI raid last month in San Juan, Puerto Rico. U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan has scheduled a briefing on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., on this and other recent incidents involving law enforcement officials in Puerto Rico.

The incident occurred February 10 at a San Juan condominium, where FBI agents executed a search warrant related to an investigation of a Puerto Rican separatist group. A group of journalists arrived at the building during the raid. The FBI said in a statement that agents established a crime scene perimeter at the front gate and the parking lot entrance to the condominium complex. “Although members of the general public and media were repeatedly told not to cross the perimeter throughout the day, residents were allowed to enter and exit the building,” the FBI said in its statement.

Normando Valentín, an anchor for the local Channel 4 News, told CPJ that the gate was unguarded when he and other journalists arrived, and at least 20 reporters were allowed inside by a resident who waved them in after opening the gate. Harry Rodriguez, an FBI spokesman in San Juan, told CPJ that the altercation occurred when agents tried to leave the scene.

When FBI agents emerged from the building, they were confronted by journalists in the parking lot, according to videotapes of the incident taken by four news organizations and compiled by the Puerto Rico Journalists Association. The journalists began asking questions about the raid, while the agents, most armed and wearing flak jackets, began ordering the reporters to move back, the tapes show. Journalists stepped backward, but the gate was closed by then. The only apparent exit was a narrow passageway, the tapes show, which was large enough for one person to pass through at a time. None of the reporters appeared to leave the parking area at that point.

Valentín told CPJ that he asked the FBI agents to open the gate so journalists could leave the parking lot, but the agents said they were unable to do so and the gate remained closed. Behind the gate, a group of at least 10 demonstrators protesting the FBI raid on the purported separatist group were chanting “assassin” in Spanish.

FBI agents continued to demand that the journalists leave the area and, when none of the reporters appeared to leave, the agents sprayed the group of journalists with pepper spray, the videotapes show. None of the journalists were seen resisting. After being sprayed, FBI agents opened the gate and herded the journalists out of the parking lot.

Demonstrators are shown on tape punching FBI unmarked vehicles and throwing objects at the vehicles as the FBI agents departed the scene. No journalists are shown on the tape engaging in such actions. FBI agents made no arrests as they left the scene.