National Governors Association
444 N. Capitol St. NW, Ste. 267
Washington, DC 20001
June 17, 2020
To U.S. Governors,
As the heads of leading multimedia news agencies, we join with the Committee to Protect Journalists to express our grave concern regarding attacks carried out by law enforcement against photographers and visual journalists covering nationwide protests against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. Amid a backdrop of violence against the press that is unprecedented in the United States, we are particularly alarmed by the more than 60 reported cases involving photographers and video journalists, the majority of them at the hands of the police. We urge you to immediately open investigations into these incidents and hold responsible anyone found to have abrogated the First Amendment rights of journalists covering the protests.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a website and database run by the Freedom of the Press Foundation with support from CPJ, is investigating more than 400 reports of journalists who have been assaulted, arrested, or otherwise prevented from covering the recent protests. The majority of these reported attacks involve the police, including several incidents in which journalists who were clearly identifiable describe being shot with rubber bullets or other projectiles, sprayed or gassed with chemical irritants, or smacked, shoved, or pushed to the ground. In some cases, journalists were arrested or detained after identifying themselves to law enforcement as members of the media. It is incumbent upon you as the top elected leader in your state to ensure that journalists are able to report safely and without fear of reprisal from law enforcement or other agents of the state.
More than 60incidents have involved photographers and visual journalists, reflecting the unique dangers they face. Since May 26, when the protests began, at least three photographers have suffered serious eye injuries, and one has been permanently blinded in one eye. Below are but a few of the illustrative incidents that have been documented:
- On May 28, Hyoung Chang, a photojournalist for The Denver Post,was struck with pepper balls multiple times while documenting protests in Denver, Colorado. The photographer, who had been taking photos near police officers when they began firing at the crowd, was told to move. He said a police officer fired directly at him.
- On May 29, at least three other photographers were struck by police while covering protests in Denver. Jan Czernik, a photojournalist for Denver 7 News, was struck four times by pepper balls fired by police. Czernik had repeatedly requested instructions from police prior to being hit. In different locations that night in Denver, police fired a tear gas canister that hit Hart Van Denburg, visuals editor for Colorado Public Radio, and a pepper ball that hit Taylor Schuss, a photojournalist with the Denver NBC affiliate 9News KUSA.
- On May 29, at least eight journalists were assaulted while covering protests in Minneapolis, Minnesota, including three photographers. Associated Press photojournalist John Minchillo was struck by a rubber bullet when police appeared to fire indiscriminately. Photojournalist Zach Roberts was pepper sprayed by Minneapolis police and later struck by a ricochet rubber bullet on the leg. Freelance writer and photographer Linda Tirado was struck by a rubber bullet on the side of her head and her left eye. Tirado was permanently blinded in one eye.
- On May 30, Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole was struck in the eye while covering protests in Minneapolis while wearing a flak jacket labeled “TV.” She was hit in the face with pepper spray as officers fired indiscriminately.
- On May 30, Reuters cameraman Julio-Cesar Chavez and his security advisor, Rodney Seward, were struck by rubber bullets while covering the protests in Minneapolis, despite being clearly identifiable as members of the press.
The very nature of visual journalism requires proximity to the subject and the events being documented. Photographers and video journalists always work on the frontlines and carry their cameras and other equipment, which makes it difficult to keep a low profile and clearly identifies them as media. Instead of making them targets, their obvious identification as journalists should protect them from attacks by law enforcement. This has not been the case.
We urge you to launch immediate investigations into these attacks, make public their findings, and hold those responsible to account. There must be no impunity for acts of violence by law enforcement against journalists, particularly in cases where journalists were clearly identifiable. In addition, law enforcement officers should receive regular training on the First Amendment rights of journalists covering demonstrations, rallies, and other public events.
We urge you to forcefully reiterate your support for the rights of journalists and media workers, and the importance of a free press in covering and reporting on protests and public events, as well as their fundamental role in holding public institutions accountable.
We look forward to your reply and would be happy to provide additional information and documentation related to these attacks and the recommendations put forth.
Committee to Protect Journalists
Stephen J. Adler
Chairman and CEO
Agence France Presse