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A Thin Black Line: Press Freedom, Repression, and Surveillance

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Journalists have been violently targeted by police and arrested alongside demonstrators at Black Lives Matter protests across the country. In this episode we’ll look at the struggle for press freedoms during a time of repression and surveillance.

Image Caption: “A U.S. Park Service Police Officer takes video of spectators observing an incident in which the USPP had kettled a group of people at 12th and L NW in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day. The USPP officer has his back to the kettled in this photo.” – taken by Douglas Fron on 1/20/2017

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  • Christopher Mattias, Journalist covering the far right for Huffington Post
  • Kirstin McCudden, Managing Editor of the US Press Freedom Tracker
  • Nora Benavidez, Director of the US Free Expression Programs at PEN America
  • Dave Maas, Senior Investigative Researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation


Host: Monica Lopez

Show Producers: Monica Lopez and Salima Hamirani

Staff Producers: Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani

Executive Director: Sonya Green

Director of Production Initiatives and Distribution: Lisa Rudman



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Monica Lopez: This week on Making Contact.

At Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. journalists have at times been violently targeted by police and arrested alongside demonstrators.


Nora Benevides Director of the US Free Expression Programs at PEN America:

I was so shocked to see such an egregious violation of basic First Amendment rights of reporters trying to just cover a protest. One of the things that we noted is that then legal observers started getting picked up and arrested as well. And so it kind of echoed the way journalists were being targeted. Any effort to document or observe or provide witness to what was happening at the protests officers were trying to limit and clamp down on.


Moncia Lopez: And later in the show, we’ll hear from Dave Maas of the Electronic Frontier Foundation about a project he’s been working on to track the use of police surveillance technology in local communities.


Dave Maas:  When we talk about defunding the police or we talk about reducing police budgets. One of the big things that police departments spend money on is surveillance technology.


Monica Lopez: Journalists are considered essential workers. Yes, in a democratic society, a free press is essential. But specifically, during the BLM protests and Covid 19 pandemic, reporters were exempted from curfews as essential workers in many cities– not all of them. In the cities where reporters were exempt they were supposed to be allowed to report on events on behalf of the public. But we’ve heard a disturbing number of accounts of journalists being arrested and attacked by police during the Black Lives Matter protests. It had gotten so bad that the ACLU of Minnesota filed a lawsuit this summer against the city of Minneapolis on behalf of journalists. But as Making Contact producer Salima Hamirani reports, it’s not just a problem in Minneapolis.


Sound of protest and person saying:  We’ve been fired at with rubber bullets and my cameraman has been hit.


Salima Hamirani: You’re listening to police knock down two journalists on assignment for Australia’s Channel Seven. They were covering the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, DC when a police officer hit the cameraman with a shield.


Anchor back at studio [00:02:10] Ameilia can you hear us? Ameilia are you OK?  or your cameraman? Hello, Ameilia.


Salima Hamirani [00:02:16] The incident was captured live and went viral, prompting a harsh response from the Australian government and shock from around the world. But it’s just one instance of what’s becoming a pattern during the protests. Police seeming to target and attack journalists even while the journalists are clearly filming and wearing press badges. We got to talk to Christopher Matias, a journalist who covers the far right for Huffington Post, about his experience in Brooklyn, where he was also arrested for trying to cover a protest.


Christopher Matias: It was on May 30th and it was at a protest march in Flatbush, which is a section of Brooklyn. It started off as a rally near a train station about three o’clock in the afternoon. And then around dusk, there started to be clashes with police. Various corners, some cop cars were set on fire and police routinely started to charge at protesters and pepper spray them and tackle them and arrest them.

I witnessed cops like charge after protesters screaming “Come here –bleep–.” You know, I saw them pepper spraying protesters while protesters were retreating. I saw them violently tackle people on the ground.

The cops were charging and I was walking backwards with the retreating protesters and filming as the cops approached and a cop kind of went out of his way to bump into me and told me to get out of his way, even though I was never in his way. I was a little worked up from everything I’d seen that day. So I said “bleep” to the cop, he was already five yards past me when he turned around and came back and put a police baton into my chest, knocked me over, my phone fell out of my hand and a few cops kind of climbed on top of me and started twisting my legs and arms in different directions and cursing at me and telling me to stop resisting arrest even though I was not resisting arrest.


Sounds of the arrest–

Christopher Matias:  And by the way, I should mention that my press pass was clearly visible during this entire thing, and I also kept identifying myself verbally as a journalist.

Sounds from the scene– Look at my press pass. I’m a journalist. You’re arresting a journalist. — Well you shouldn’t have gotten in my way!


Salima Hamirani The police arrested Chris and then they put him in the back of a police van.


Christopher Matias: And then to the police precincts where I was in custody for probably for three hours at two precincts.

They put me in a cell with about 15 other guys, and we were put a tiny cell where it was impossible to socially distance. Most people didn’t have masks or weren’t supplied with masks. I ended up getting a test after that experience,  and fortunately, came back negative. But there’s been many stories now about outbreaks of COVID in jails and prisons across the US.


Salima Hamirani Remember that Chris covers the far right. So it’s not the first time I’ve seen the police become violent with protesters.


Christopher Matias: But, yeah, I mean, I’ve seen like in Portland, police be incredibly aggressive in these flashbang grenades against antifascist protesters. And then, you know, on the opposite side, I was in Charlottesville in 2017 where I saw Nazis, you know, push back against riot cops demanding that the cops back up, the cops back down. So I think there is demonstrative differences in how cops treat certain protesters often.


Salima Hamirani: Still Chris found the police response at the George Floyd protests unusual.


Christopher Matias: I’ve witnessed a lot of police brutality at protests over the years, but I personally have not experienced this level of aggression.


Salima Hamirani   And despite his experience, Chris says he feels lucky in some ways.


Christopher Matias: I am a white journalist and probably had the most privileged experience of this that a person can have. And it was still incredibly scary. So it stands to reason that they are treating people that aren’t white and that aren’t journalists much more harshly.


Salima Hamirani It’s hard to tell from anecdotal evidence whether the police are actually targeting the press more than usual. We live in the digital age, so we’re able to capture and disseminate information a lot easier.


Kirstin McCudden: So in part, there are just more protests, more danger zones for journalists. Also, every protest, every year that there’s a protest, there’s the ability to capture more and more of what’s happening. There are more cameras out there, more phones.


Salima Hamirani That’s Kirstin McCudden.


Kirstin McCudden And I’m the managing editor of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. That’s a project that documents aggressions against the press in the United States.


Salima Hamirani We talked to Kirstin to get some sense of the real numbers. And what Kirsten told us is that actually they’ve never seen anything like these arrests before.


Kirstin McCudden They’re unprecedented. I think we will wear out the word unprecedented before the summer is over. But the scope and scale of what we are seeing, this is really a it’s a turning and defining moment for journalists in the US.


Salima Hamirani The tracker has been aggregating data about the assaults since the Black Lives Matter protests started.


Kirstin McCudden  And to date, we’re in the middle of July. Nearly 500 aggressions against the press have been reported in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. We’re working independently to verify 68 arrests of journalists covering these protests and documenting what’s going on. Two hundred and twenty physical attacks. That is everything from being hit with a projectile to assaults. More than one hundred reports of chemical agents being used, that’s tear gas, pepper spray and also about 70 equipment damages. And you have to think of how important this is for a journalist, that’s newsroom damage, but that’s also camera’s broken, bicycle’s being stolen.


Salima Hamirani And here’s how those numbers compare to what the Tracker has seen in the past.


Kirstin McCudden  The tracker was started in 2017– from 2017 to the end of 2019, we documented a little bit more than four hundred press freedom aggressions. We are independently verifying 496 that have come in in the past eight weeks alone. That is more than the trackers entire history.


Salima Hamirani And it’s not just the number of attacks it stands out, but the level of violence itself.


Kirstin McCudden  The more police departments that have more pepper spray, more rubber bullets. With that comes a higher number of incidents of assaults. We have at least two journalists who have lost either complete vision in one eye or may lose vision in one eye. This is the militarization of police departments at local levels. I think it does make a difference with what’s being used out there and the damage that it can do to citizens and also to journalists.


Salima Hamirani   So what’s going on here? To understand why the number of attacks on journalists have increased and what’s at stake. I talked to Nora Benavides, the director of the US Free Expressions programs at Pen America. Nora Benevides says that since Trump has been elected, she’s witnessed a trend.


Nora Benavides: Here in the United States, there has been a rise over the last several years in threats to free expression. That includes a lot of threats to our free press and to the ability of reporters to give readers to give the public information about our government and to hold government accountable. And so much of what we’re seeing now and why I’m so concerned about the state of free expression in the United States is that I think we are seeing a very targeted effort to minimize certain groups from being able to engage in public discourse. And what we see quite a bit is journalists, for example, that try to portray or cover, for example, the Trump administration in critical ways– They are targeted.

I think we’ve seen some compounding crises here, we’ve seen the pandemic. And then we have seen anti-lockdown protests that sprang up around the country. Some of those were lauded by our president. And, you know, those people were seen, for example, by him and characterized as very good people. And so in all of that, there was kind of this fever pitch of rising tension between how certain protesters in the anti lockdown arena were being characterized by our leaders. And then a rise in efforts to really come together in solidarity around the George, Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests.


Omar Jimenez: I’m sorry, OK. Do you mind telling me why I’m under arrest or why? Why am I under arrest sir?

Nora Benavides: And I remember back at the end of May when Omar Jimenez of CNN was arrested in Minneapolis. He and his crew were arrested while trying to cover a protest.

CNN crew member  We were just out here reporting the closure of the streets. They just… Omar was just arrested. I believe we’re all about to be arrested, that’s our producer… {being hancuffed}


Nora Benavides: I remember in that moment it was like the next morning. I was so shocked, as I know a lot of my colleagues were to see such an egregious violation of basic First Amendment rights of reporters trying to just cover a protest. But then that started happening again and again and again. And I honestly think that it’s really a sign of the times and that we are seeing efforts to limit how people can understand what’s happening around those protests.


If there are no reporters to report on the police misconduct or how police officers are treating protesters, protesters may simply not know what’s really going on. And so it’s absolutely an effort to frame and very carefully frame what {information} people have access to.


Salima Hamirani One of the questions I had for Nora was the role that race played in the level of police aggression. And she said, at least in terms of who getting arrested, it seems to be all kinds of journalists.


Nora Benavides: The interest in stamping out journalists presence at protests is not confined to journalists of color. One of the things that we noted is that then legal observers started getting picked up and arrested as well. And so it kind of echoed the way journalists were being targeted. Any effort to document or observe or provide witness to what was happening at these protests officers were trying to limit and clamp down on.


Salima Hamirani But what is also clear from her research is that race actually plays a huge role in which movements are targeted by the police and by the government.


Nora Benavides:  Recently, Pen American released a report that looks at the last five years of legislative proposals that have been introduced around the country to either increase penalties for protesters or somehow create new types of penalties for people who are engaging in protected activity.


And what we largely saw was that there were a few ways these bills try to target groups and they don’t try to target all groups. They specifically target people who engage in activities that are known to be tactics used by Black Lives Matter and Dakota pipeline protesters. So dozens and dozens of bills over the last several years have been introduced, we found, namely, to criminalize people who march on public roadways. That was over the last several years, a tactic used by Black Lives Matter. We’ve also then seen dozens and dozens of bills introduced that criminalize people who are protesting near critical infrastructure sites.


Salima Hamirani   And protesting critical infrastructure such as oil pipelines is a tactic of indigenous protests.


Nora Benavides: All of which seems to suggest in our data and analysis that it’s really these racial justice and often Black, indigenous and other people of color that are targeted by government.


Salima Hamirani So what do we do? How do we protect journalists in this kind of environment? If you look at some of the recommendations online right now, journalists are being told to go into work dressed as if they’re entering a battlefield that actually bothers Nora.


Nora Benavides: We should not be in the position of giving civilians or reporters ways to adapt their practices to meet what a new normal is in a more militarized environment. But we need to be looking at why we have a more militarized environment that silencing people’s free expression.


Salima Hamirani  But there are two ways we can really start to push back against this level of violence. To start, we can force public officials to hold the police accountable.


Nora Benavides: Well, one of the things that Pen America is doing is we’ve been working with a coalition and leading efforts to call on governors and local mayors offices to actually investigate and then hold police departments accountable for their violations of press freedom. We know that many of the cities that have the highest attacks on journalists have been places like Minneapolis, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. And so in many jurisdictions, we’ve actually been working with dozens of press freedom and media coalition groups to try to put pressure where we can on officials: 1) for them to call out that these types of attacks are violations of the First Amendment and 2) bring forward bigger accountability efforts so that in the months to come, when we do not anticipate a dampening of people’s protests and civic engagement, we want local and state officials to be there at the ready to defend both reporters’ and protesters’ First Amendment rights.


Salima Hamirani The second fix is a broader cultural change in newsrooms themselves. And this might seem unrelated, but part of the problem with journalism and how the media portrays protests, especially protests led by Black and indigenous leaders, is that there aren’t actually that many journalists of color reporting on these issues. So values like objectivity take precedence over values such as anti-imperialism or antifascism. And that’s partially why we’re in the position we’re in now.


Nora Benavides: A lot of reporters said there’s this reckoning over objectivity. And so we need to have Black and brown reporters in the mix reporting on issues that frankly, other reporters that are not of color, not Black, not brown, are simply not attuned to, and not thinking about what the systemic consequences are here. And when we only have a monopoly in our publishing world and in the media of white reporters, that is a failure to hold our larger communities and our government accountable for certain oversights.


I mean, I loved seeing, for example, you know, Wesley Lowery did a piece in The New York Times on this: It was called The Reckoning over Objectivity, and it was led by Black journalists. And I think that this is one of those moments where one of the questions that has to be wrestled with now is how do we deal with what the traditional standards of journalism mean when one of those is objectivity? Because that simply isn’t good enough now, in many instances to say “it’s one of our hallmarks of good and practical and ethical journalism.” Instead, we now have to think about, well, what is the role from an equity lens and the value, the important value of having Black and brown reporters able to actually hold accountable those that they’re reporting on.


Salima Hamirani  You were just listening to Christopher Mattias,  Kirstin McCudden and Nora Benevides and reporting from Oakland, I’m Salima Hamirani.


Monica Lopez [00:18:43] You’re listening to A Thin Black Line: Press Freedom, Repression and Surveillance,  on Making Contact. This and all of our shows are offered for free to radio stations across the country and around the world. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram. Our handle is @making_contact.

And now back to A Thin Black Line.


A rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to defund police departments with multi-billion dollar budgets and millions in damages from excessive force lawsuits paid by taxpayers. One big ticket item on some police budgets is surveillance technology. Dave Maas is a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a visiting professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, ReynoldsSchool of Journalism, where he and hundreds of students built what they call the Atlas of Surveillance.


Dave Maas You know, as a as a researcher in surveillance at TFF, I get two kinds of questions asked all the time by reporters and researchers and by local community members. And the first question is, how is a particular surveillance technology spreading across the country? Who has face recognition in the US who have license plate readers? The second question I get is not about a specific technology, but about a specific place. I live in Chicago or I live in Seattle or I live in Albuquerque. And what are all the technologies that my local law enforcement agencies are using? And there wasn’t a good resource for answering these questions. And so eventually, you know, we were approached by the University of Nevada Reno’s journalism school, and they asked whether we had some sort of project we could do with a larger number of students, perhaps more than one hundred and fifty students.


And immediately I thought we can build this database that people can come to to learn about the surveillance state, to learn about what kind of technologies are in their communities, whether they’re in someplace rural or in a major metropolitan area. So now, after having spending 18 months with hundreds of both student researchers, as well as volunteers, members of the EFF community, we’ve put together the first version of the Web site,  its Atlas’s surveillance dot org. And it has a way for you to play around with a map to flip on and off switches, to see which technologies are used by which police departments. There’s also a fairly robust search where you can put in where you live, your state, your county, your city, and don’t return a list of all the technologies we’ve gathered for that area, along with  out links that you can you can visit in order to get more information.


One of the things that we do is that we work with local organizations and grassroots groups to try to pass ordinances that require this technology to go through a public process before it’s adopted. So what I mean by that is that when a police department wants body or cameras or drones, the idea is that police shouldn’t be able to just make that decision, you know, in a back room with a sales person from the company. Instead, they need to write up a policy. They need to assess what the impact will be on privacy and civil liberties. And they need to bring that policy and their entire proposal to the city council or board of supervisors, whoever the elected body is, to have permission. And that gives the community the opportunity to weigh in and say what they think is appropriate or not appropriate for communities.


And if they are going to allow a surveillance technology into their community, what the restrictions are on how it might be used.


Monica Lopez: Particularly with everything that’s been going on recently with the federal police going out to various municipalities during these protests. What is the significance of a database tool like this?


Dave Maas: You know, one of the reasons we put this out into the world, this is something we’ve been working on for a very long time, but it’s also the sort of project that never ends. And we had to make a decision when were we going to cut this off and just go live? We can keep collecting data, you know, month after month after month. But when is enough for us to put it out into the world? And so as these protests have been raging on, not just, you know, we don’t just have concerns about how surveillance is being used against protesters, but the protests themselves about the growth of the police state implicates all of these technologies.

When we talk about defunding the police or we talk about reducing police budgets. One of the big things that police departments spend money on is surveillance technology. And so we decided that it was very important to get this out into the world as soon as possible. And so what we see in terms of people using the site is that certainly in cities where there is a lot of unrest going on or where federal law enforcement is stepping in. We see people searching our site for information about those areas. Sometimes that might become useful when, you know, you’re making a decision about how you’re going to dress and what kind of mask. And obviously, people are wearing masks quite a lot now. But, you know, because of the pandemic, but even in previous times before the pandemic, there might be a decision you might want to make about whether to wear masks or not based on whether police are using body worn cameras. You know, you might want to keep an eye out for drones.

You might want to have an idea of what technology is being used, because maybe weeks later somebody might get arrested and you might wonder what kind of evidence was gathered on this person. A lot of these technologies are kept secret from defense attorneys. And so it’s important to know what the police have. So defense attorneys can go and ask for evidence from them.


Monica Lopez: So I saw a description on the EFF website of what looks like a preliminary atlas of surveillance project that focused more regionally on the border communities in the Southwest. And there seemed to be some pretty clear parallels between the tactics used by U.S. Border Patrol and ICE and the monitoring and the arrest of immigrant communities and the tactics that have been used by federal agents during these demonstrations against repressive policing. Is that something that EFF or the Atlas project is keeping track of as well?


Dave Maas: So what you’re talking about is our Atlas of Surveillance focusing on border communities. This was our pilot project last year just to see whether we could collect the data in a useful way, how the students would be interacting with the research and interacting with our tools. And so we started, instead of looking at the full country, we looked at the twenty three counties along the US Mexico border. And based on that success, we started moving around more broadly across the United States. But what we’ve seen is that, you know, in border areas, that is where federal money is flowing in to purchase technology either by the federal government themselves or the federal government is funding programs like Operation Stonegarden, which gives money to local law enforcement agencies to buy technology for, you know, quote, border security purposes. And so then you start seeing iris recognition, face recognition, license plate readers, cell sites, simulators, the whole range of technologies starting to creep in to even the smallest border towns in the southwest. And then that technology kind of moves its way upwards.


The city of San Diego, for example, is very much a testing bed for a lot of these technologies. You see some of the larger commercial drones being tested in San Diego. San Diego had one of the earliest mobile face recognition programs. And a lot of this is just coming in because it’s a border region because, you know, the courts have looked at at civil liberties around the border and decided that there’s, you know, diminished rights when you’re near a border. And that has resulted in the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Agency administration, U.S. Marshals and a variety federal agencies collaborating with local law enforcement to enhance data collection, surveillance technology, creating these these Real-Time Crime Centers and intelligence centers that are analyzing data all the time. So you’re exactly right. The border is indicative of what is to come elsewhere in the country.


The Atlas of Surveillance is meant to be a collaborative project. We do want the site to serve as a resource for people trying to gather more information. But we also want to encourage people to participate and help us collect more data so we can fill out the entire map. We have information on something like three thousand police departments across the country. There are close to 20,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. And so certainly we need to build up our research base in order to cover more ground. The more people who are becoming literate to these issues, who are understanding how the press is covering these issues, are learning how to read public documents about these issues. So for us, part of the utility of a project like this is building up a movement that is cognizant of of the rise of surveillance in addition to just learning about it.

Monica Lopez : And where can people go? They just go to To


Dave Maas: I really encourage people to click “search the data,”  which is going to give a lot more information about where they live. But there will also be a tab called Collaborate, which we have a lot of opportunities to get involved.


Monica Lopez : Again, that was Dave Maas, senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This has been A Thin Black Line: Press Freedom, Repression and Surveillance, on Making Contact.

This show was produced by Salima Hamirani and Monica Lopez. The Making Contact team is executive director Sonya Green, director of production initiatives, Lisa Rudman, producers Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani and Monica Lopez. Web updates by Sabine Blazin. And I’m this week’s host. Monica Lopez. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.


Author: Radio Project

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