By Monica Nieporte, OMNA President and Executive Director
To all of our members who are out there covering protests – be careful out there.
Never before did I worry that harm would come to one of our journalists at the hands of police but I can’t say that anymore.
The constant casting of journalists as “enemies of the people” has resulted in journalists being treated as such this past week by both some members of the angry mob and law enforcement.
Reports of journalists being arrested, intentionally sprayed with pepper spray or tear gas, hit with a police baton, shield or fists makes me sick to my stomach.
These incidents are not as isolated as you’d think. They are happening all over the country, including right here in Columbus.
Journalists who are out covering protests are exercising their First Amendment right of freedom of the press covering citizens exercising their First Amendment rights of freedom to assemble and free speech. Yes, there are some vandals and other ill-intentioned persons in the crowd and journalists are covering their despicable actions too – but they are not part of them. Not only is being in the middle of social unrest a danger in and of itself, but being in the middle of it during a pandemic carries additional risk. These journalists should be lauded and treated as the first responders. They’re risking life and limb to keep their communities informed. What if the public had to rely on government press releases about what happened during these protests? An independent third party is crucial in times like these.
Unfortunately law enforcement is not pausing to discern who is out causing problems and who is not a threat. If you’re out past curfew, you are treated as a threat.
I’d like to think if law enforcement or the military went up to a bunch of paramedics and just started beating them and hitting them with knee-knockers that there would be a big public outcry. There is no public outcry when journalists get abused this way because the public has been conditioned to think “well, the news crew must have deserved it”. Where’s the outrage over a priest being hit with pepper spray so our president could stage a campaign photo without protestors in the background? A priest. Not some hopped up vandal with a brick in his hand smashing windows. A priest. On church property. If the president didn’t know that’s what his attorney general had ordered, then where is his outrage? His apology to the church?
Growing up in Northeast Ohio, I always wondered how the tragedy on May 4, 1970 happened at Kent State. Try as I might, I could never quite wrap my head around how in the world something that like could have happened. How could young soldiers fire live ammunition into a crowd of college students? After seeing what I’ve seen this past week, I have to say that my head is now around it. I get it. It’s scary. And it is exactly the kind of thing that can happen when no one in a leadership position steps in to diffuse tensions and everyone is on edge.
When I worked as a reporter, I always knew local law enforcement had my back if a situation turned dangerous. I had a lot of friends wearing black and blue who would cast protective glances over our way to make sure no one was harassing or abusing us and they would not have hesitated to pull one of us to safety. It would never have occurred to them that it was okay to fire rubber bullets at us or spray us in the face with mace. There was mutual respect – they didn’t interfere with us and we didn’t interfere with them but if it came right down to it, we could count on them for protection if we had to. I never once felt unsafe. I find it sad that so many journalists today are having a far different experience.