Guild launches forum for journalists covering OWS

A reporter is arrested covering Occupy Atlanta (LadyMorrigan).

Media Workers Guild

Covering the Occupation Movement can be hazardous.

A growing number of reporters and photographers have been teargased, threatened with arrest or otherwise bullied by police. And while overzealous authorities appear to be the worst offenders, protesters also have been known to turn on anyone who seems to represent “corporate media” — most likely a media worker, sometimes a union member, trying to do a job.

The Newspaper Guild launched a page Tuesday on Facebook, called “Occupied Journalists,” designed to serve as an online forum for media workers to share survival strategies and anecdotes from the streets.

Sara Steffens, a staff organizer in Oakland for the Guild and its parent union, the Communications Workers of America, said the online forum began when “we started hearing a lot of reports from all over the country from journalists running into trouble covering the protests.”

“The Occupy movement is about justice,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of the Guild, in Washington, D.C. “Our effort is to ensure just treatment for all journalists and media workers as they cover this story that’s playing out in the streets.”

The new Facebook page follows a letter-writing protest the union aimed at Oakland authorities after rough treatment of media covering a police action intended to clear out the Occupy Oakland encampment.

“Clearly, by all accounts I have seen and read, the police leadership on the ground lost both perspective and control,” Jim Weitkamp, a regional vice president for CWA and the union’s top officer in California and Hawaii, wrote in a letter to Mayor Jean Quan and interim Police Chief Howard Jordan.

Susie Cagle, a journalist-cartoonist who has been covering the Occupy Oakland scene with her sketchbook, was caught up in a police sweep of Oakland’s streets after a mostly peaceful daylong “general strike” Nov. 2. She reported about her experience in a piece on Alternet.

I ran for cover in a nearby doorway with medics, legal observers and many scared occupiers as two police lines marched on the plaza, firing tear gas, flash bangs and “less lethal” projectiles in rapid succession. When they approached the entrance to our doorway, people screamed, “Peace, we want peace!” and “Don’t shoot!” with hands up.

“We don’t want to hurt you guys, we hope you don’t want to hurt us!”

A minute later we were all face down on the ground.

When I told my arresting officer that I was press, I was first told, “We’ll take care of that in a minute.” That next minute turned into 15 hours in two different jails.

Steve Fainaru, interim editor in chief of The Bay Citizen, a San Francisco-based nonprofit online news organization, reported being hit with a tear-gas canister at the same scene.

Strangely, as I stared at the back of my left hand, scorched and black after a tear gas canister fired by police hit me in the stomach and exploded, I didn’t want it to be news.

Accounts and images of such incidents began appearing on the new Facebook forum within hours of its launch Tuesday.

Steffens said the Guild wants to help “create a community where working journalists can share ideas” without necessarily having to rely on authorities to keep newsgathering safe.

Violence against journalists – up to and including executions and newsroom firebombings – have been all-too-common in the Mexico drug wars and battle-savaged Middle East. In high-crime American cities, veteran street reporters have gotten used to looking out for their safety.

But now, U.S. journalists of all backgrounds, including many with little or no experience covering mass street protests, are suddenly finding themselves in harm’s way.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had this kind of story,” Steffens said.

The journalism is enriched, she added, when all kinds of media are covering the action, including reporters more used to covering feature or finance subjects than violent confrontations.

All deserve respect – and a chance to do their work. Audiences might be missing some important insights from journalists who may not feel comfortable covering the Occupation protests if they believe it’s unsafe — or no one will come to their aid if they run into trouble.

“This is an important line to hold,” Steffens said.

The on-the-job training is complicated by the fact that many newsgatherers are unknown freelancers or uncredentialed bloggers with no organizational name recognition backing them up. Sometimes, police and protesters alike seem to have trouble distinguishing just who should be considered part of the working media.

The police are still working through the policy issues since the Occupation Movement sprang up in September. Some improvements may hinge on public officialdom or formal policy changes.

But Steffens said newsgatherers don’t like asking for help, and in any case can take steps on their own, and with colleagues, to stop any notion that violence or bullying of working media, in any form, can be tolerated.

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