IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Group calls for DOJ inquiry into treatment of press in Ferguson

A new report alleges police violated press freedoms during the protests in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown and calls for a DOJ investigation.
St. Ann, Missouri police officer Lt. Ray Albers points an assault rifle during a protest of the death of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
St. Ann, Missouri police officer Lt. Ray Albers points an assault rifle during a protest of the death of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

A new report on the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the Aug. 9 death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown has outlined more than 50 allegations of violations of press freedom.

RELATED: Tales of employment woe plague some Ferguson protesters

The alleged incidents outlined in the report, titled "Press Freedom Under Fire In Ferguson," include journalists being arrested, threatened verbally and physically, and being tear-gassed while covering the protests, according to the PEN American Center, which released its findings on Monday.

The organization, a group that defends freedom of expression and press rights, is calling on the Justice Department to conduct a full investigation into all alleged press freedom violations in Ferguson and issue guidelines for police forces on respect for press freedom during public demonstrations.

“The press play a critical role in documenting and disseminating information about human rights violations, including those that happen during public protests," Katy Glenn Bass, deputy director of free expression programs at PEN, said Monday in a statement. “The pattern of press freedom violations observed in Ferguson is troubling not only because it suggests a breakdown in communication between the police and the fourth estate, but also because it restricted the flow of public information about police actions in Ferguson, thus limiting the ability to hold the police accountable for misconduct.”

In the days following Brown’s killing by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, widespread protests erupted and news outlets from across the country converged on the small city in the suburbs of St. Louis.

As the protests grew larger, so did the police contingent on the ground, their arsenal of weaponry and the force with which they used to respond to protesters. Some journalists reported being attacked by protesters, while others reported being roughed up and threatened by police.

In one highly publicized incident a police officer from a neighboring town raised an assault rifle at a group of reporters and threatened that “I’m going to f------ kill you! Get back, get back!” The officer was initially suspended and then resigned days later.

During the height of conflict between police and protesters, police fired off tear gas and rubber bullets into the mostly peaceful crowds. Members of the press were not immune from the onslaught, and images of journalists abandoning their equipment to take cover were beamed across the country via cable news networks and other national media.

RELATED: Amnesty International slams Ferguson over human rights abuses

In another encounter between members of the press and police, two reporters were arrested while charging their electronic devices at a McDonald's located on a main strip in Ferguson, near ground zero of the protests.

The reporters, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post, recorded the encounter in which they identified themselves as members of the press and recounted being manhandled by the officers. The two reporters were released a few hours later without charges.

The following day, on Aug. 14, President Obama expressed his concern over the escalation of violence in Ferguson.

Obama urged people to “come together” in Ferguson, called for a transparent investigation into Brown’s death and said there’s “never an excuse for violence against police.”

But he added, “police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their job.”

“Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority,” Obama said.

Some journalists reported that they were kept in obscure staging areas set up by police or told to simply go home amid coverage of the protests. Others told the PEN center that some officers had removed or obscured their name badges.

Sgt. Brian Schellman, the head spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department, which has played an integral role in policing the protests in Ferguson, responded to a number of allegations against the police in the PEN report. When asked by msnbc if he had any other comments regarding the contents of the report, Schellman said no and referred back to his quotes published in the report.

Addressing the removal of name badges, Schellman said, "Many officers have had death threats directed at them or their families and this was viewed as a safety concern," adding that the officer's name tags have pins that could have caused injury during a "riot situation."

Schellman said the department's policy now is for officers to always wear their name tags and badges. He also said that the county police department has also expanded its training to include an extensive review of the 1st, 4th and 14th Amendments and that officers will have a laminated card on them at all times with rights of the press.

As for reporters being cordoned off, Schellman said the media staging areas were set up so that press could "be close enough to the incident as possible, with their safety in mind," that reporters were never required to stay in that place and that it was "made available should they want to use it."

That assertion runs counter to many reporters' experiences on the ground, as msnbc witnessed firsthand orders by police to either stay in place or face arrest.

The PEN report was not “a blanket condemnation of the law enforcement officers who policed the Ferguson protests,” its authors noted, citing some armed individuals among the crowds who at points fired off weapons. “However, the number of reported abuses collected here strongly suggests that some police officers were deliberately trying to prevent the media from documenting the protests and the police response.”

The PEN report highlighted a troubling trend in how police treat the press more generally. Over the last seven years, including incidents during the 2008 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and up through the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, acts of hostility and limitations have been imposed on the press by law enforcement, according to the report.

The report also called on state, county and municipal police departments to establish clear policies that emphasize respect for the rights to assembly and freed of the press

RELATED: Darren Wilson’s lawyer speaks out on leaked Brown autopsy

The Pen American Centers report comes just days after the release of another highly critical report by Amnesty International, which denounced police treatment of protesters as international human rights violations. Amnesty International listed a number of alleged abuses suffered at the hands of law enforcement that ran the gamut from the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to the use of high-frequency acoustic devices that pose serious health risks.

"The Justice Department should provide clarity to police departments nationwide to ensure that press freedoms during public protests are fully respected,” said Bass, the lead researcher on the report. “Police should also be trained on press rights in the digital age of cell phone cameras and citizen journalists."