Aug. 15, 2017 – Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the violent assaults and harassment of journalists covering the “Unite the Right” protest and counter-protests in Virginia this weekend, where at least four media professionals were punched in the face, sprayed with urine and hit with a stick.
“RSF is deeply disturbed by the violence exhibited by protesters toward members of the media at this weekend’s protests,” says Delphine Halgand, Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “It is crucial that journalists are present to document such protests, and they should feel safe to do so without risking injury or worse. These kinds of violent attacks are unfortunately not so uncommon in the United States recently. For example, in May the Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs was attacked by a congressional candidate, and during the #BlackLivesMatter protests journalists were thrown to the ground. We condemn all physical attacks on journalists who are merely trying to do their jobs, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones of the victim who was killed at the protest.”
Journalists across the nation traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend to cover the protest, which attracted hundreds of white supremacists and antifascists. Some said their newsrooms had been preparing for this protest, which many assumed would turn violent, for weeks and months. It was “all hands on deck,” according to The Daily Progress’ Ryan Kelly, who captured one of the more graphic images of the weekend.
The Hill’s Taylor Lorenz was livestreaming after a protester named James Fields Jr. slammed his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19 others, when a counter-protester approached her and yelled, “Stop the f–cking recording,” before punching her in the face and knocking her phone to the ground. The counter-protester, Jacob L. Smith, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery. After, as Lorenz was recording a video of the protests for Snapchat Live, a group shouted at her, “Don’t snitch, media b-tch.”
Renowned television anchor Katie Couric, who was covering the protest on Saturday for her upcoming National Geographic series, tweeted that two of her producers were sprayed with urine in Charlottesville.
The following day, on Sunday night, August 13, an unnamed CBS 6 photojournalist was filming an anti-racist counter-protest in Richmond when he was approached by a protester who told him to stop recording. When the journalist responded, “I can do whatever I want, get out of my face,” the phone was knocked out of his hands. When the reporter appeared in the video to push back the protester, another then hit him with what he described as a big stick. The reporter was taken in an ambulance to a hospital, where he received four staples in his scalp.
Outside the Charlottesville courthouse on Monday, August 14, where Fields’ initial hearing took place, the violence continued through verbal attacks exchanged by the protesters and counter-protesters. “Unite the Right” activists gathered and screamed at journalists covering the hearing, “You are all to blame for this,” though their shouts were soon confronted by counter-protesters who yelled back.
RSF reminds journalists to take extra precautions while covering protests. RSF’s “Safety Guide for Journalists,” which was published in coordination with UNESCO, includes rules and advice for journalists working in crowds, demonstrations and riots.