No News is Not Good News: If Cops Tape Protests and Journalists and No One Reports It, Is It Intimidation?
Is it news when police photograph and videotape demonstrations?
Apparently for American editors and reporters, making that news judgement depends on where the demonstration occurs and what nationality the police are.
When a hundred artists gathered outside a Beijing courtroom in mid-November to protest the jailing of artist Wu Yuren, who had earlier been beaten by police and jailed because he had gone to a police station to file a complaint against a landlord, the New York Times ran an article by reporter Andrew Jacobs which pointedly noted that police officers had videotaped the crowd, and then quoted a demonstrator, artist Dou Bu, as saying, “I was scared to come out here today, but you have to face your fears.”
But a week earlier, when several hundred backers of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist on Pennsylvania’s death row for the killing of a police officer, demonstrated in front of a Third Circuit federal court building in Philadelphia, where a three-judge panel was rehearing an argument on his sentence, and local police not only videotaped the officially sanctioned rally, but also aggressively photographed and taped a group of journalists waiting to be allowed into the courtroom early, there was no mention of their action in any media, local or national.
In Philadelphia, and in cities across the country, it has become routine for police departments to openly and surreptitiously videotape participants in demonstrations, and to assemble files on demonstrators, even when the events are entirely peaceful and without incident, and when the rallies or marches have been issued city permits.
Philadelphia Police officials insist that the photographing and videotaping of protests is legal and is not intended to intimidate dissent. Lt. Raymond Evers, who heads the Philadelphia Police public affairs unit, says the purpose of such photographic records is “crowd control and training.” He claims the department wants a record so that if any violence occurs, police can show what happened, and how police responded, and also so that any perpetrators or malefactors can be identified later.
That doesn’t explain what happened at the Abu-Jamal hearing, however. On Nov. 9, some 12 journalists who had come to the Federal Courthouse on 6th Street, just two blocks from the old Independence Hall where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were signed, to cover an appellate court panel hearing reviewing a federal district judge’s 2001 ruling that lifted Abu-Jamal’s death sentence, found themselves surrounded by Philadelphia Police who began photographing and videotaping them at close range. The reporters, who had been credential-checked and then herded by US Marshals down a kind of “cattle chute” constructed of temporary metal barriers, to a holding point in front of the court building’s main entrance, were unable to avoid being repeatedly photographed.