Friday, October 30, 2009

Hindering Comprehension

New Yorker Elliot Madison recently was charged with Hindering Apprehension and other crimes for using Twitter to inform protestors about police movements during anti-G-20 Summit demonstrations in Pittsburgh. Police found Madison and another protestor allegedly directing their comrades via computer in a suburban Pittsburgh hotel room on the first day of the Summit.
As a Reuters freelancer I covered some of the protests, and I’m wondering why police were allowed to hinder my comprehension of what was happening. Their RoboCop-sounding message threatened everyone present with arrest and physical action by officers, and warned:
"No matter what your purpose, you must disperse."
Blasted over a military-issue PA system that was mounted atop an armored police vehicle, the message was serious enough for many journalists to lose enthusiasm for the humid march on G-20 Day One. Just after that day’s first protestor-police clashes, a large Wall Street Journal reporter huddled close to a couple in their yard as riot police stormed past.
“They can’t arrest you on private property,” he said to me.
“We’re protecting him,” the couple said.
Later, at 5 p.m., after more than two hours of cat-and-mouse between protestors and officers, police again chased protestors—this time, ironically, near Liberty Avenue, in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield section.
“Get out of the street!” a shotgun-armed officer shouted at a CNN journalist near him. She collapsed on her haunches.
I was nervously reporting on the scene, while trying to evade police. Several journalists weren’t as lucky and were arrested during the protests. But dodging the cops while trying to work made me wonder how we can hinder or stop reporters from covering news and still have a truly free press.
Police texted each other during the G-20 marches, protestors tweeted one another and reporters texted and phoned their peers while being threatened for doing so. The Internet has changed the political game, but our law officers, and our laws, are slow to reflect the anarchic freedom and immediacy of the Texting Age.
Even so, you can’t harass, threaten and arrest journalists for covering news, then say you have a free press. When journalists cannot freely report news happening on the street, those scenes will lack objective eyewitnesses to give the details of what happened. Without journalists covering such incidents, whose job will it be to tell the entire truth about them?