Tag Archive: freedom of the press


American government keeps files on “suspicious” photographers

(pdf link) - Suspicious Activity Reports from Joint Regional Intelligence Center Los Angeles Region - released by the American Civil Liberties Union

(pdf link) – Suspicious Activity Reports from Joint Regional Intelligence Center Los Angeles Region – released by the American Civil Liberties Union

We’ve covered the war on cameras many times before. In some cases, police harass photographers for taking pictures of police action. In other cases, photographers are reported or stopped for taking pictures of buildings and bridges in plain view (previously, and also here). In the US, it’s not illegal to take pictures of people, places, and things visible while standing on public property, but that doesn’t stop security guards and policemen from interfering with photographers using their cameras. In a security awareness poster, in fact, the Transportation Safety Administration has equated photographers with terrorists.

The ACLU has just released a slew of “Suspicious Activity Reports” (← pdf link) from the FBI’s Joint Regional Intelligence Center in Los Angeles. An NPR report about the documents’ release details the case of photographer Hal Bergman, who has been questioned both in person and over the phone multiple times by FBI agents. Bergman likes to photograph industrial scenes, and that’s enough to raise the suspicion of the federal government. In the screenshot of one of the reports above, a report describes the investigation of a pair of photographers who were photographing empty lots and streets around a manufacturing plant.

Many of the incidents and investigations contained in these “Suspicious Activity Reports” end, as above, with a line similar to “No further police action/investigation was taken.” However, the reports show that individuals are being targeted for being unfriendly, taking pictures for an art class, or buying water. It’s a waste of resources and potentially quite harmful to the people whose actions are being investigated. In a recent unrelated case, a dark-skinned man was pulled aside for additional screening by the TSA while passing through airport security. Though TSA and the NYPD cleared him after several hours of questioning, Jet Blue refused to allow him to board his plane. Sometimes having a record of being investigated, regardless of whether a crime was committed or not, is enough to make ordinary activities inconvenient or impossible.

Here are some resources to help photographers know their rights in the US:

Journalist James Foley remains missing after being kidnapped in Syria in Nov. 2012

James Foley, Aleppo, Syria - 11/12 (photo by Nicole Tung) - Foley was kidnapped in Syria while reporting and last seen Nov. 22, 2012

James Foley, Aleppo, Syria – 11/12 (photo by Nicole Tung) – Foley was kidnapped in Syria while reporting and last seen Nov. 22, 2012

“Unidentified gunmen kidnapped a US journalist on Thanksgiving Day [2012]. More than a month later, he remains missing. American James Foley, 39, was last seen on Nov. 22 in Idlib Province. Idlib has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent months between Syrian rebels and government forces.” -Global Post, US journalist missing in Syria

2012 was a bad year to be a journalist. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 70 journalists were killed as a result of their job, while Reporters Without Borders has the number at 89, and the International Press Institute reports a record year at 133 journalists killed on the job or as a consequence of their reporting. All of these organizations report that Syria was the most dangerous country for journalists, media workers, and citizen journalists last year. And last week we learned that American journalist James Foley, a writer and videographer, was kidnapped on Nov. 22, 2012, in Idlib Province, Syria.

His condition and whereabouts are still unknown 48 days (as of this writing) after his disappearance. Foley’s family decided to spread word of his kidnapping in January 2013 with a public appeal asking for his safe return. You can keep up to date with the case at FreeJamesFoley.org‘s latest news page.

Add your name to the appeal for James Foley’s safety and return or, if you know anything about his whereabouts, please send information to the family.

In the time since Foley’s kidnapping, many other journalists have been killed or faced violence or other repercussions as a result of their reporting. Keep up to date with the Committee to Protect Journalists’ news alerts.

The war on cameras continues – #OWS and elsewhere

Skip to about 1:45 in the video above to see police obstructing New York Times freelancer Robert Stolarik from taking pictures. It’s the latest demonstration of the NYPD’s general strategy of impeding the freedom of the press to cover Occupy Wall Street as it unfolds. We’ve written about states making it illegal to photograph or take video of police previously. But what we’ve seen in New York recently is a concerted effort to prevent the press from taking pictures or video of the protests and police conduct. Journalists have been arrested on a few occasions; here’s a personal account from Vanity Fair photographer Justin Bishop about his arrest. After the Stolarik incident above, which happened earlier this week, New York Times lawyer George Freeman sent a stern email to Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Brown, expressing the paper’s “disappointment” with the way Stolarik was treated. Here’s the full text of an earlier, similar letter, signed by a coalition of media honchos. In a discussion with Capital New York, Freeman described the email to the NYPD:

“We are disappointed that the result and first step of our recent meeting with Com. Kelly, the directive he issued reiterating that the police are not supposed to be interfering with the media’s doing their jobs and covering newsworthy events, has apparently not been followed or implemented on the ground. The World Financial Center video indisputably shows an officer bobbing and weaving for no other purpose than to block a Times freelancer’s ability to photograph police actions.” -NYT lawyer George Freeman, speaking with Capital New York

This isn’t the first volley between media and the NYPD and Bloomberg administration. Letters have been sent to the authorities before; various organizations have helped pressure the NYPD and other authorities, as well. Though this is not without some effect&em;in late November, NY Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a memo for all police instructing them not to interfere with the media&em;the Stolarik video shows that police continue to obstruct the press with impunity.

The NYPD have also said that the best way for reporters to avoid arrest is to carry a press card issued by the NYPD (though later recanted that statement). Wired’s Threat Level blog dug into the process of getting a press card and found something straight from Orwell. “We aren’t issuing press credentials to reporters covering Occupy Wall Street,” Detective Gina Sarubbi, NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, told Wired. And NYPD spokesman Stu Loeser admitted that arresting credentialed journalists covering Occupy Wall Street was justified. Photographer CS Muncy says that wearing an NYPD press card is akin to wearing an “arrest me” sign at the Occupy demonstrations. The Village Voice has more general coverage of the issue.

The limitations placed on photographers are limited to Occupy Wall Street, New York City, or even the US. The Committee to Protect Journalists chronicles journalists killed and detained each year around the globe. Here’s the list of journalists killed so far in 2011.

The ACLU recently sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in a federal suit, “alleging that the Sheriff’s Department and deputies ‘have repeatedly’ subjected photographers ‘to detention, search and interrogation simply because they took pictures’ from public streets of places such as Metro turnstiles, oil refineries or near a Long Beach courthouse.” American Journalism Review has further coverage of “the rising tension between news photographers and law enforcement officials” around the US.

And for a moment of levity, watch first half of the following Stephen Colbert clip in which is berates the Wisconsin state government for allowing guns in the state capitol building, but not cameras:

The Colbert Report – Stephen Colbert reminds us that while guns are now allowed in the Wisconsin capitol building, cameras are not
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,Video Archive

“Thank God! Cameras are dangerous. With no waiting period or background check any wack-job could just stroll into a Wal-Mart and walk out with a semi-automatic [camera]. Now for years I’ve been pressing for stricter regulations on cameras, especially around our elected officials. To many political lives have been cut short by some crazed [photo] shooter.” -Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report

Colbert’s funny, but the issues are real. We’ve linked to Carlos Miller’s Photography is Not a Crime blog in the past, but it’s worth looking at again. Here are some recent posts: Virginia Man Arrested For Recording Cops Plans Lawsuit, Blogger Must Act Like Journalist To Be Treated Like One, Man Arrested After Photographing Executive Office Building In D.C., Nashville Police Arrest Journalist Covering Protest, Former WV Senator Ordered To Delete Photos In Pittsburgh Mall, Iowa Man Convicted In Videotaping Case Needs To File Appeal, Occupy Cincinnati Activist Arrested After Photographing “Covert” Cop Car, Occupy Calgary Activist Threatens To Sue Videographer For Recording Him, and Chicago Police Delete Journalism Professor’s Video Footage Of Arrest. Sadly, Miller’s blog is never left wanting for new content.

Tim Allen - DSLR ban at UK Tube Station

Tim Allen - DSLR ban at UK Tube Station

And in the UK, there’s a particularly laughable sign that’s been erected outside the Aldwych tube station (part of the London Underground system), banning DSLR cameras. Tim Allen found the sign and posted it to a twitter picture service. The sign reads “Due to their combination of high-quality sensor and high resolution, digital SLR cameras are unfortunately not permitted inside the station.” Amateur Photographer has a bit more information, and a follow-up as officials try to justify the ban. The British Journal of Photography has continued pressure on Transport for London, including a Freedom of Information request to get all government information relating to the ban.

Still in the UK, if you haven’t seen it before, Stand Your Ground is worth a watch. A group of photographers set out on the streets of London to exercise their right to photograph that which is in public view. They were interrupted in a variety of ways by representatives of private property, but received support from London police. It’s a great video.

As always, know your rights as a photographer. There are two good online summaries for US photographers, one by Bert P. Krages, an attorney who works on photo-related issues, and another by the ACLU. If anyone knows of similar resources for photographers from other countries, please send them along or post them in the comments below.

Miami police point gun at videographer, smash cellphone; man saves video by hiding SD card in his mouth

“Benoit, who was with his girlfriend, Ericka Davis, said police pulled him out of the car, put him face down on the pavement, guns pointed at the couples’ heads, handcuffed him, and smashed his cell phone. Then they put the smashed phone in his back pocket as he lay on the ground.

But Benoit had saved the video to his phone’s SIM card and hid the card in his mouth before the phone was smashed.” -At Gunpoint, Miami Police Threaten Videographer At Fatal Shooting, NPPA

We’ve covered states prosecuting people who’ve made video recordings of police activity before. In a new case from last week, a man used his cell phone to record video of the scene of a fatal shooting in Miami. Police officers forced him back into his car. In the latter half of the video above, a police officer can be seen pointing a gun at the man with the video camera. The man with the cell phone camera, Narces Benoit, alleges that police then forcibly removed him and his girlfriend, handcuffed them on the ground, and smashed his phone. Benoit saved the video by concealing the memory card from his camera in his mouth. The NPPA has more details, including link to recent abuse of power by police in Fort Lauderdale to restrict photography of a movie set.

Now is a good reminder to print out a copy of The Photographer’s Right.

California judge rules seizure of photojournalist’s camera illegal

A California judge ruled that photographer David Morse’s rights as a journalist were infringed when police seized his camera equipment and photos relating to Morse’s coverage of a December 2009 San Francisco area protest. Police used a court-backed search warrant to take the items. Now, a judge has said that the search of the photographer was improper and violated state laws protecting journalists from having their work seized by authorities. The First Amendment Project assisted Morse in defense for the case. Great news. Photographers: know your rights!

(via lightstalkers)

Three US states make recording police activity illegal (UPDATED)

Police arrest a man at the amusement park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. Photo by M. Scott Brauer

Police arrest a man at the amusement park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. Photo by M. Scott Brauer

The Freeman has an interesting look into various states’ efforts to make illegal the recording of police activity. In Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland, wiretapping and eavesdropping laws have been used to prosecute individuals who have recorded police activity in a public location.

“[In three states] it is now illegal to record an on-duty police officer even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.” -Are Cameras the New Guns?

In one example case, motorcyclist Anthony John Graber III was stopped for reckless driving. A plain-clothes police officer stopped him, jumped out of his car waving a gun and screaming, and issued a ticket. Graber had a video camera mounted in his motorcycle helmet; he posted video of the encounter to youtube. Ten days after the police encounter, after police found the video on youtube, Graber was arrested and charged under felony wiretapping laws, which could result in up to 5 years jail time. In December 2009, street artist Christopher Drew found himself in a similar situation in Chicago. Drew was arrested while selling art on the streets of Chicago as a test of the cities anti-peddler law. During the arrest, police officers found a small audio recorder that was recording and charged Drew under felony wiretapping laws; Drew faces 4-15 years in prison. As the Freeman reports, not everyone in the legal realm agrees with these policies: Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall dissented to a 2001 ruling upholding charges stemming from recording police activity, “Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals….”

For further reading, keep up with Carlos Miller’s Photography is Not a Crime blog. Since his own arrest in 2007 for photographing Miami police (he was acquitted of all charges), Miller has been chronicling cases of First Amendment violations, many of which involve photographers arrested for taking pictures in public places. And take a look at the excellent Photographer’s Rights pamphlet for US photographers.

(via metafilter)

UPDATE: In 2010, charges against Anthony John Graber III were dismissed by a Maryland judge. The ruling “makes it clear that police officers enjoy little expectation of privacy as they perform their duties” and helps narrow the definition of wiretapping in the state’s laws. In the decision, the judge wrote that the situation “took place on a public highway in full view of the public. Under such circumstances, I cannot, by any stretch, conclude that the troopers had any reasonable expectation of privacy in their conversation with the defendant which society would be prepared to recognize as reasonable.”

American journalists held in North Korea to be tried

After the news of Roxana Saberi’s imminent release this week comes a reminder of the harrowing situation of two American journalists currently held in North Korea. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested on March 17 on the border between China and North Korea reporting on North Korean refugees for Current TV. The pair will be put on trial on June 4 for illegal entry and “hostile acts.” The court responsible for the trial, the Central Court, ordinarily hands down verdicts at the end of a one-day hearing, and the pair face at least 5 years in a labor camp for “hostile acts” and 3 years for illegal entry. According to the Washington Post, “Since the 1990s, at least three other Americans have been detained by the North for extended periods after entering the country. All three were released after negotiations.”

Video: Foreign journalist blocked from reporting in Sichuan Province, China

chinesecensorship

Screengrab from video of Financial Times reporter Jamil Anderlini being stopped in Sichuan Province, China.

The Financial Times has video of correspondent Jamil Anderlini being stopped from reporting in Sichuan Province, China, in advance of today’s 1-year anniversary of the tragic earthquake that hit the province. At the end of the report, there’s video of Huo Xiongfei, Sichuan Province’s vice head of propaganda for the Communist party, saying “Concerning whether there were seven foreign journalists who came to interview in the earthquake zone and got harassed, bothered and detained, first of all, we have not received such complaints so far.” China’s official position is that the country is open to foreign journalists; much progress has been made over the past few years, but the reality in Sichuan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and other areas of the country, is very different. (via Danwei)

Roxana Saberi to be freed

Reuters reports this morning that Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi will be freed soon. Saberi, contributor to PBS, NPR, and other news organizations and a former Miss North Dakota, was arrested in February 2009 after purchasing a bottle of wine. She was later sentenced to an 8 year prison term on charges of espionage. That sentence will now be reduced to a suspended two year sentence and the stipulation that she not report from Iran for 5 years. Her release is imminent. This is great news, especially after reports earlier this week that Saberi had to discontinue a hunger strike due to health concerns.

China’s Underpants On Fire in an Inauspicious Start to the New Year

Fireworks bounce off highrise apartment buidings during Lantern Festival celebrations in central Haerbin, Heilongjiang Province, China.

Fireworks bounce off highrise apartment buidings during Lantern Festival celebrations in central Haerbin, Heilongjiang Province, China.

The first I learned about the tragic CCTV fire in Beijing was reading about it here in Matt’s post, despite being an 8 or 10 hour train ride from Beijing. That’s because, with only a few exceptions, the news was absent from China’s television and newspapers. News media and online forums and blogs were issued a gag order of sorts by the government, prompting one internet forum to cull it’s 2000 message thread down to 9. That night and the next morning, I saw nothing on Chinese television or in the newsstands about the fire.  The New York Times describes the Chinese domestic media blackout, which drew much anger from the public online and led many to snark that CCTV (China’s notoriously controlled and ironically named state media) created the biggest story of the new year and then failed to cover it.  The title of this post, by the way, comes from some Beijingers’ nickname for the iconic CCTV towers (which didn’t burn): Big Underpants.

I was in Haerbin that night, a bit to the north of Beijing, where Lantern Festival celebrations were in full swing. The fireworks were shooting up between the buildings, as in the picture above, but it was nothing like the view from an apartment building in Beijing:

 

The Big Picture has a few shots of the blaze and aftermath in their Lantern Festival post, and there are also numerous firsthand accounts with pictures and video that have made their way online. Some of the other heavy-hitting China blogs have their own analysis: Black and White Cat compares CCTV coverage early in the night with picture-less coverage after midnight, Danwei aggregates links and translates some reports, Chinasmack has additional pictures and more information on the censorship, and Shanghaiist has even more pictures.  The Architect’s Newspaper Blog also has extensive coverage of the fire and its aftermath.

CCTV eventually came clean and acknowledged responsibility for the fire, which killed 1 firefighter and injured others.  The television company hired a company to set off several hundred large fireworks to mark the holiday, but did so without a permit, which has now resulted in 12 people being arrested (the BBC has more details) including the chief of CCTV’s building construction.

And for good measure, here’s a post from Alex Pasternack in 2007 about the significance of the building and the process of its construction.