A mounting crackdown on reporters by authorities has been seen in recent weeks as the Trump administration has deployed federal agents to several cities where demonstrators are calling for racial justice.
And now, UN human rights spokesperson Liz Throssell has spoken out to protect the press.
“[The protests] must be able to continue without those participating in them and also the people reporting on them, the journalists, risking arbitrary arrest or detention, being subject to unnecessary disproportionate or discriminatory use of force or suffering other violations of their rights,” she said at a news conference in Geneva.
Her comments come after weeks of US authorities attacking and arresting the journalists who are covering the historic racial protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
On 1 July, Andrew Buncombe, chief US correspondent with The Independent, was arrested in Seattle while covering the police clearance of the Capitol Hill Organised Protest (CHOP). He was charged with failure to disperse despite repeatedly identifying himself as a journalist. He was held for at least eight hours before being released.
In response, The Independent launched a campaign to protect journalists called Journalism Is Not a Crime.
Announcing the initiative, The Independent said in an editorial: “What we see today is how often the human rights of many, reporters included, seem to be casually disregarded by American police forces that are granted extraordinary immunities from prosecution. A certain institutional ethos has developed that the police are above the law, and have so little to fear from press scrutiny that they can lock journalists up with impunity.
“It is not healthy for a police officer to treat justice and the tradition of habeas corpus as dispensable, mere inconveniences to clearing the streets.”
More than 70 journalists in the US have been arrested during Black Lives Matter demonstrations, while dozens of others have been injured by rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas. The US Press Freedom Tracker has collected more than 500 reports of journalists being targeted during unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in late May.
Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the US, told The Independent on Friday that America has a “very strong track record on media freedom, and naturally we look to that to continue.”
“I have taken up [Andrew Buncombe’s] case and that of other British journalists with the State Department and the White House,” she said in response to a question from The Independent about the rise of attacks on journalists in the US.
Ms Throssell, from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, raised concerns over reports that people were being detained by unidentified federal officers in Portland, Oregon.
“That is a worry, because it may place those detained outside the protection of the law, and may give rise to arbitrary detention and other human rights violations,” she said.
The Trump administration’s decision to send federal agents to Portland and a number of other US cities has sparked controversy in recent days. The president announced plans this week to send agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, as he increasingly touts “law and order” as the central theme of his 2020 re-election campaign.
Agents from the US Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service were deployed to Portland ostensibly to protect federal buildings. But video and witness testimony has emerged in recent days showing them detaining people without cause far from federal property, and using violence against peaceful protesters.
On Thursday, a judge in Portland barred federal law enforcement officers from arresting or using physical force against journalists and legal observers attending the protests if they were not committing any crimes.
“When wrongdoing is under way, officials have great incentive to blindfold the eyes of the fourth estate,” federal judge Michael H Simon said in his ruling. “The free press is the guardian of the public interest, and the judiciary is the guardian of the press.”
Portland’s mayor has described the use of federal agents to quell protests as “a direct threat to democracy”.
Two federal watchdogs launched investigations this week into the use of force by federal law enforcement agents in Portland and Washington DC during the protests.