Special Report

6 June 2020

Toxic US politics, a brutal killing and the messengers become the target

CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez ... arrested in a First Amendment violation, then released with a police apology. Image: Al Jazeera screenshot/David Robie
6 June 2020

Three cartoonists had especially poignant takes on the tragic and toxic political aftermath of martyr George Floyd’s brutal killing under the knee of a white American policeman in Minneapolis last week.

The Boston Globe’s Christopher Weyant featured a split frame contrasting a red-capped “Make America Great Again” and a Covid Is A Hoax tee-short dangling his face mask while declaring: “You’re violating my freedom – I can’t breathe”.

On the other side of the frame is the accused policeman with his knee on Floyd’s neck as he gasps: “You’re violating my freedom … I … can’t breathe!”

READ MORE: President Trump and the news media

An unnamed Greek cartoonist shared by Elena Akrita showed the Statue of Liberty bearing the flame of freedom while extinguishing a life with a jackboot.

At the other end of the globe, in the South Pacific, New Zealand Herald’s Rod Emmerson depicted President Trump holding aloft a petrol can in his right hand instead of the Bible. In the background is the legend: In God We Trust: In Trump We Just Shake Our Heads.

His speech bubble says: “I’m completely out of my depth, and I’m not afraid to prove it.”

The disturbing week led the Herald to play on the infamous callousness of Emperor Nero as Rome burned with a digital update in its editorial: “Trump tweets while his country burns.” (The online version of the heading was much milder).

‘Darkest time for America’
“City and police officials are now more diverse than ever, yet America’s racial problems are deep-seated and there is a palpable impatience with incremental change,” lamented the Herald.

“It is probably the darkest time for America since 1968 when, amid the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, riots rocked the country, and Richard Nixon was elected.”

Amid the chaos, the savage treatment being meted out to the messengers was also unprecedented, with many media freedom watchdogs and news organisations condemning the attacks on reporters.

Among the most dramatic incidents was the arrest of a CNN news correspondent in Minneapolis – captured live on television – with the black reporter pleading what he had done to “deserve” being detained. It was an outrageous violation of human rights and the US First Amendment.

CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez was freed an hour later with a police apology but the harm had been done right in front of a global audience.

As he told a journalism colleague, his mother and grandmother were watching as the police manhandled him. And because he hadn’t been charged with anything there was no record of where he had been taken.

Paris-based global media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned this and many other attacks in the strongest possible terms and called for immediate measures to protect journalists.

Trump’s ‘demonisation’ of media
It also blamed President Trump for his “demonisation” of the media for the attacks.

“Protests in at least 30 cities across the US following the police killing of George Floyd have resulted in violent attacks from police and protesters alike against journalists,” RSF stated. “Dozens of incidents have been reported so far, ranging from threats to serious physical assaults.”

At the time of a public statement on June 1, RSF said at least 68 incidents had been documented of attacks by police and protesters on media.

“They have been shot by rubber bullets and pepper balls, exposed to tear gas and pepper spray, beaten, threatened and intimidated and had their news vehicles vandalised, simply for doing their jobs,” said RSF.

“President Trump’s demonisation of the media for years has now come to fruition, with both the police and protesters targeting clearly identified journalists with violence and arrests,” said RSF’s secretary-general Christophe Deloire.

“It has long been obvious that this demonisation would lead to physical violence. RSF has warned about the consequences of this blatant hostility towards the media, and we are now witnessing an unprecedented outbreak of violence against journalists in the US.

“RSF calls on all US authorities to ensure the full protection of journalists and honor the country’s founding principles in respecting press freedom.”

Among serious attacks
Among the most serious attacks cited by RSF and circulated by Pacific Media Watch:

  • “In Minneapolis, Linda Tirado, was left permanently blind in one eye after being struck by what she believes was a rubber bullet fired by police officers as she photographed protests.
  • “In Pittsburgh, Ian Smith – a photojournalist for KDKA TV – posted to Twitter that he had been “attacked by protestors downtown by the arena. They stomped and kicked me. I’m bruised and bloody but alive. My camera was destroyed. Another group of protesters pulled me out and saved my life.”
  • “In Phoenix, CBS reporter Briana Whitney was tackled live on air as a protester made a grab for her microphone.
  • “In Washington, D.C., Fox News reporter Leland Vittert and his crew were punched, hit by projectiles, and chased by protesters who had gathered outside the White House.
  • “In Minneapolis, Australian 9News US correspondent Tim Arvier was detained by police at gunpoint.”

In some “fresh horrors” reported by the independent Australian media website Crikey:

A man waves a Black Lives Matter flag atop the CNN logo during a protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd outside the CNN Centre on May 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Image: RSF

Down Under rallies
Crikey also reported that “on the home front”, the ABC had reported that NSW police were investigating an officer after he was filmed “kicking the legs out of an Indigenous teenager”.

“The news comes as Nine reports that over a thousand people marched in Sydney last night ahead of even more protests this weekend, while CNN lists a number of other solidarity protests across countries, including New Zealand, England, Mexico, Syria and more.

“Just remember to wear your covid-19 masks, comrades!”

However, the week has ended with some media good news after the covid-19 shakedown and huge loss of jobs in both Australia and New Zealand – AAP Newswire has been saved at the 11th hour with a promised buy-out by a group of investors and philanthropists headed by former News Corp chief executive Peter Tonagh. Between 75 and 90 jobs may be saved as a result.

As the Australian media union MEAA says, the proposed purchase is a “crucial recognition” of the role AAP plays in the Australian – and Pacific – media ecosystem.

David Robie

Professor, PMC Director

Professor David Robie is an author, journalist and media educator specialising in Asia-Pacific affairs.