Social protest: Police violence against photographers and journalists

The SiPreBA media workers trade union and CELS published a report documenting cases of people injured, detained and charged with crimes while documenting protests in 2017.

During 2016 and 2017, activists and organizers were repeatedly persecuted for their participation in protests as social conflicts intensified nationwide. In some cases, they were detained and charged with crimes and their organizations were fined or shut down.

In 2017, serious episodes of police violence against protesters continued, involving police roundups, officers carrying firearms at demonstrations, unidentified police officers and vehicles, and the indiscriminate and short-range use of crowd control weapons deemed “less lethal,” like rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray.

Journalists, photojournalists, camera operators, assistants and – more generally – people recording or covering the police’s actions, have also been victims of this violence. In many cases, they were trying to capture images of the repression against protesters around them.

We have collected data on the consequences of police repression in 2017 from a survey of news items published in the media and testimonies compiled by the media workers trade union, el Sindicato de Prensa de Buenos Aires (SiPreBA). However, it is possible that there are more cases we are unaware of that should be added. Here are the main findings:

– On at least eight occasions in 2017, journalists and photographers (professional or not) faced obstacles while recording security forces’ actions during protests, or were intimidated to desist. For example, in La Plata, Buenos Aires province, a journalist recording the detention of a protester was violently immobilized during a march protesting the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado.

– Also in 2017, at least ten journalists and photographers were subjected to pepper spray for recording demonstrations or suffered the effects of tear gas. Among these, there was a photographer covering a march by the “Ni Una Menos” women’s movement who tried to photograph the police in action: the officers sprayed pepper gas in her face.

– Numerous media workers were beaten and injured by security forces. At least seven people suffered injuries from attacks by police, two of whom were hit by tear gas cartridges. And at least 45 journalists, photographers or media workers were hit by rubber bullets shot by police during protests. In some extreme cases, the same person was struck by dozens of rubber pellets while recording events.

Even though authorities try to argue that some of these injuries were errors by the security forces, the fact is that there are dozens of cases in which photographers were targeted directly and from a short distance, even when they identified themselves as “press” and had their equipment in sight. Authorities will also argue that the injuries suffered by the journalists were a consequence of “stray rubber bullets,” since it is difficult for the police to foresee where the pellets will go once they are fired from shotguns. Despite the fact that in many cases journalists were directly targeted, this type of justification points to a highly problematic aspect of the use of crowd control weapons: they are used with the sole intent of dispersing a protest, a practice that is prohibited, without taking into account that they can cause serious injury or kill.

– In reviewing the cases from 2017, we were able to find at least 13 journalists or photographers who were arbitrarily detained in the context of a protest. In all of these cases the affected persons spent several hours, and some of them days, deprived of their liberty. In addition, some were criminally charged in federal courts.

The work of journalists, photographers and all people who record protests and the state response to them is fundamental to protesters being able to exercise their rights, and it represents in itself the exercise of the right to communication.

Coverage in the press and social media acts as a megaphone for the demands of protesters, enhancing their political impact and potentially compensating for geographic or mobilization-related disparities.

At the same time, this coverage functions as an oversight mechanism regarding the state response to protests. Sometimes, the mere presence of rolling cameras prevents episodes of violence, and when they do occur, such recordings facilitate public denouncement and allow for upending the official police version of events.

Testimony from journalists and photographers, and their recorded images, have been key to clarifying and adjudicating deaths that have occurred in the context of social protests. For example, in the case of the investigation into the murders of Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki in June 2002, photographs taken by media workers from Clarín, Página 12 and Canal 7 provided evidence that discredited the official story that the victims had been killed by other protesters, showing they had been killed by officers from the Buenos Aires provincial police force. Similarly, in the killing of Mariano Ferreyra in October 2010, video captured by a crew from TV channel C5N showed how a gang of thugs who answered to trade union leadership attacked the protesters.

Press coverage and other recordings in the context of social protests is fundamental for the exercise of protesters’ freedom of expression, and for the prevention, denouncement and punishment of state violence.

It is imperative that Argentina’s political authorities adopt effective and concrete measures to ensure the safety of journalists during social protests, and guarantee them the greatest possible freedom to do their jobs and record the actions of security forces.

The full report entitled “Social protest: Police violence against photographers and journalists,” which provides details on all the documented cases, is available here in Spanish.