Ali Winston

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.

If journalists with explicit permission from their publications to attend protests are getting harassed, then one can imagine how younger, less “officially sanctioned” journalists are treated.

Gabriel Riocabo, 23, a recent graduate of Amherst college, who worked for the Indypendent (New York Indy Media Center’s newspaper) during summer 2006, says he experienced a great deal of harassment. Riocabo adds that he knows his rights when it comes to covering a public event, but not all young reporters do.

“I’ve always thought it was a punishment to get [demoted] to directing traffic, but they seem to take great pleasure in telling you where on the street you can stand,” he says.

Police can direct individuals to move if there’s a danger to the public good, but if someone is merely standing on the sidewalk, taking pictures of people protesting, they don’t have any legal basis to make an arrest. That doesn’t mean they won’t often arrest photographers and issue ticket for disorderly conduct. But the purpose of such an arrest, say journalists, is to clear the street, and the charges are seldom pursued.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has taken note of the NYPD’s antagonistic approach. “There is a climate of mistrust and hostility towards photographers and especially the media in New York City,” said Sam Unger, a law student who runs the Project on Photographer’s Rights with the NYCLU.

According to Unger, there’s no official restriction on photography in the city, or on photographing public events. The NYPD has arrested people in the past for this, and the NYCLU recently filed suit against the Department to challenge policing of photography in public spaces.

For young activists attending the protests, this type of police action is disturbing for several reasons; For one, it threatens the very rights that protesters exercise. In addition, it serves to limit the exposure and effectiveness of the protests themselves.

Laura Schaefer, a 20-yr-old a junior at NYU attended several protests in New York in recent years, including the 2004 United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) rally against the War in Iraq.

“As a student who believes that demonstrations against policy is a necessary and crucial way of effecting change, limiting the access of the media to these protests sends a message to civic-minded individuals that their complaints will not be registered,” she says.

“At the same time, I don’t believe that the officers are acting independently of orders,” Schaefer adds. “It is troubling to me that it has almost become policy to curb the First Amendment rights of journalists.”

Critical Mass rides, political actions where in dozens of bikers and alternative transportation advocates cycle through Manhattan, are seen by many activists as NYPD targets, as well. While covering an April 29, 2005 Critical Mass ride, New York Times reporter Colin Moynihan was shoved and handcuffed against a car, during an interview by a cop trying to clear a street. Like other cases, he was released without charge.

Todd Maisel, the Vice-President of the New York Press Photographers Association and a staff photographer at the Daily News, characterizes newsgathering as a “business of constant conflict” in which confrontations are expected. He believes that inadequate training is at the heart of police misconduct towards the media. “You become a target sometimes when you have a press card,” he says.

The NYPD patrol guide, issued to every officer, has explicit guidelines about conduct towards journalists that instructs officers not to interfere with videotaping or photographing in public places and that “blocking or obstructing cameras or harassing the photographer constitutes censorship.”

When asked about the pattern of confrontations between the NYPD and journalists covering protests, Assistant Chief Michael Collins, said, “Members of the media and the department regularly respond to the same incidents, do their respective jobs, and go on their way again without conflict. In those rare situations where there is a conflict between the two, it is immediately investigated with the utmost urgency.”

According to Collins, the NYPD seeks the return of NYPD credentials only in “the most serious of situations” and “charges may be filed” against officers if serious criminal conduct is alleged. Collins did not respond to questions regarding whether the NYPD keeps a running tally of such incidents, nor would he comment regarding whether or not the department works with organizations such as the National Press Photographers Association to ease existing tensions.

Some reporters maintain that NYPD brass is complicit in badgering the working media and refusing them access. CBS2 reporter Brendan Keefe touched on this point in a speech he gave on October 21, 2006 to the New York Press Club: “Do not buy into the theory that reporters are harassed only by a few rogue officers. These restrictive press policies are endemic within the NYPD and are tacitly approved at the highest levels.”

Interestingly, NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit has also been videotaping and photographing demonstrators for years, in direct violation of the Handschu Consent Decree, which explicitly forbids police surveillance of public demonstrations. Sam Unger, from the NYCLU, finds this ironic. “It’s troubling that the only records of public events will be in the hands of the state,” he says. “It’s a strange way of applying the First Amendment.”

For more information, check out the following links:

–The 2006 Worldwide Press Freedom Index compiled by press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders. (the US is ranked 53rd).

–An article by Reporters Without Borders expresses concern about several incidents of police violence against journalists in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

This Video recorded the harassment of Daily News photographer Susan Watts during a 2003 rally against the invasion of Iraq.

A report from Newsday describes how Moises Saman, a Newsday photographer, was grabbed from behind, thrown to the ground, and held for two hours after taking pictures of arrests during the Republican National Convention in 2004.

Ali Winston, 22, is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago and a freelance writer based in New York, NY.