Seattle mayor and police chief told to remedy ‘unacceptable’ arrest of Independent journalist

Lizzie Dearden
·4 min read

Seattle’s mayor and police chief have been told to remedy the “unacceptable” treatment of journalists, including an Independent reporter who was arrested covering Black Lives Matter protests.

Andrew Buncombe was shackled, assaulted and detained for more than six hours after being accused of “failing to disperse” from a demonstration he had the legal right to report on.

On the same day, local journalist Omari Salisbury, a common presence at Cal Anderson Park, said he was threatened with arrest unless he stopped broadcasting as police cleared the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP).

Mr Salisbury was not arrested, but Mr Buncombe, The Independent’s chief US correspondent, now faces a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $5,000 (£4,000) fine.

He said he was alone at the time of his arrest, remained on the correct side of a police cordon, repeatedly identified himself as a journalist and showed his State Department-issued press badge.

Amid international anger over the incident, a member of Seattle City Council has written to mayor Jenny Durkan and police chief Carmen Best.

Councillor Lisa Herbold said the charges against Mr Buncombe may be dropped by the Seattle City Attorney, but that would not excuse his initial arrest.

“The action of removing the reporter from the scene prevented him from covering the story and informing the public of what he saw,” she added.

Ms Herbold said Mr Buncombe’s arrest violated the Seattle Municipal Code, which states that failure to disperse orders cannot apply to news reporters unless they are “physically obstructing” lawful efforts by police to disperse a group.

The city council also adopted a bill in 2017 that enshrined the right of “public observation, recording or expression in the vicinity of police actions”.

“It is our job as elected officials to ensure the press remains free and is able to carry out its work, in accordance with the constitution and city law,” Ms Herbold wrote.

“The constitution and Municipal Code protections for the press, and observers, do not exist for the convenience of government, to be cast aside whenever they happen to be inconvenient.”

The non-partisan councillor said first amendment protections for the press were a “lynchpin of American democracy”, warning: “Unless respected by government, the quality of our democracy is diminished and eroded.”

Ms Herbold called for the mayor and chief of police to “explain the plan to remedy this unacceptable abridgement of First Amendment rights and improper use of city law”.

Mr Buncombe was arrested on 1 July, while covering the police operation to clear the CHOP — an area of Seattle that had been occupied by protesters since early June.

He said he was arrested five minutes after arriving at Cal Anderson Park by an officer who told him to stop taking photographs and leave, despite the fact Mr Buncombe had not crossed the police cordon.

He was handcuffed, shackled and taken into custody at the West Precinct station, where he described crowded and unsanitary conditions despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Buncombe said he was assaulted by a guard, while other inmates said they had been threatened, mistreated or accused of crimes they did not commit.

UK consular staff gave assistance to Mr Buncombe on the day of his arrest, and it is understood diplomats at Britain’s Washington embassy have raised the police treatment of British journalists with the Trump administration.

Christian Broughton, editor of The Independent, said: “It is imperative that democratic leaders everywhere stand up unequivocally for truly independent journalism. The arrest and appalling treatment of Andrew Buncombe must be condemned.

“As a global news organisation, The Independent has correspondents based permanently in countries with poor records for press freedom, and we frequently send reporters into conflict zones and dangerous situations. So when the phone rings to tell you a journalist has been arrested, you don’t imagine that the correspondent in question would be in the United States.

“Andy is an experienced and highly respected reporter. As he writes in his article, the job of a journalist is not to disperse. Our job is to be present.”

The deputy director of research for Amnesty International USA, Justin Mazzola, said Mr Buncombe was one of at least 60 journalists arrested as they covered protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May.

“The media has an important role to play in protecting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but especially right now, when society is taking to the streets to protest the unlawful killings of black people by police while simultaneously combating a highly contagious virus,” said Mr Mazzola.

“The media have a right to attend and report on these protests, and law enforcement officials have a responsibility not to prevent or obstruct their work. If not, human rights violations like the ones we have witnessed over the past two months will breed in the darkness.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “very concerned” by Mr Buncombe’s arrest.

Programme director Carlos Martinez de la Serna said: “We are horrified by the continued use of harsh and sometimes violent police actions against journalists who are doing their jobs.”

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