January 29, 2007
In twenty-six years as a New York City-based press photographer for Newsday and the New York Times, where he works today, Ozier Muhammad has never had his press credentials revoked. That changed abruptly while he was covering a demonstration on October 30, 2006.
The Pulitzer-prize winner was photographing about 200 demonstrators gathered in front of the Mexican Consulate on Park Avenue to protest the murder of Indymedia reporter Brad Will by out-of-uniform officers in Oaxaca, Mexico. During the event a demonstrator scaled a lamppost and unfurled a life-sized banner of Will. When a protester lay himself down in the street –a common protest tactic called a “die in” –several photographers, with and without press passes, crowded around to take pictures.
According to Muhammad, the police then began to clear the street. Muhammad and several other credentialed cameramen continued to photograph; upon which he was approached by an NYPD officer who repeated the order, saying “the next time I have to tell you to move back, I’ll take your badge and issue you a summons.” When Muhammad replied that he had credentials and neglected to move, the officer (Luongo, according to his badge) demanded his camera and press pass. Muhammad handed them over and Luongo issued him a summons for “interfering with governmental process.”
While writing out the summons, Luongo asked: “how many times has this happened to you before?” When Muhammad told him it never had, the officer silently walked away. Thanks to the prestige of the New York Times, a captain for the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, which handles press affairs for the NYPD, spoke with Muhammad half an hour later and revoked the summons (a copy of which the captain refused to let Muhammad keep).
Not everyone was so fortunate. Another photographer with a valid press pass, freelancer Erin Siegal, also tangled with officers after refusing to stop photographing the prostrate demonstrator. While it is not entirely clear what was said (Ms. Siegal declined to comment for this piece), she was forcibly arrested and her equipment was confiscated. Siegal currently faces a disorderly conduct charge.
The recent Brad Will protest is an example of a trend that alarms many reporters interested in accurately covering political protest. In the face of increasingly heavy-handed law enforcement policies, physical and verbal harassment and zero-tolerance measures, journalists say access to important information may be eroding. And many reported instances of police interference with working journalists occur during demonstrations where citizens choose to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.
“There’s a history of conflict between the police and the press,” says Muhammad. “However, it’s come to the point where tensions have turned into a punitive attitude on the part of the police. Their perspective is, ‘we’re not going to recognize you [credentialed journalists] as someone with access.’ The credential doesn’t mean anything to them,” he says, noting several occasions where he witnessed officers manhandling and even handcuffing journalists. Muhammad says that he noticed a major shift when Rudolf Giuliani took office in 1993. “Instances started increasing in his first term, and it has been sustained ever since,” he adds.