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Lenses at the sharp end

PHOTOGRAPHERS have been having a hard time, with attacks coming from all sides. NUJ London Freelance Branch, now again representing most photographers in the union, asked member Pierre Chukwudi Alozie for an update. See the shorter printed version here.

In a speech in Arizona on 22 August Donald Trump (the 45th president of the United States) claimed that the "very dishonest media, those people right up there with all the cameras..." and was rewarded with booing of said people with cameras. "And I mean truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media, they make up stories. They have no sources in many cases. They say 'a source says', there is no such thing. But they don't report the facts." Trump's remarks foster and nurture continuing attacks on working journalists throughout the world.

The US Press Freedom Tracker project has recorded twenty journalists being arrested so far this year, with twenty attacks on journalists and twelve suffering equipment searches or seizures.

This trend is global. A 2017 survey by the Rory Peck Trust found that 36 per cent of Ukrainian freelances had received threats of physical violence. The European Federation of Journalists conducted a fact-finding mission to to Macedonia in April and heard that since 2016, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) had recorded 21 attacks on journalists.

The IFJ concluded that "the main reasons for the increased violence are:

  • The political climate, anti-media rhetoric and polarization lead to a highly unsafe environment for journalists;
  • There is no political will to ensure conditions for free and independent journalism. State institutions and political stakeholders undertake no responsibility for the protection of journalists; and
  • The criminal and civil justice systems do not deal effectively with threats and violence against journalists. No implementation of media protection laws and no prosecution of the perpetrators make journalists an easy target.

In Venezuela, the the National Union of Press Workers (SNPP) reports "aggressions" against 376 journalists up to 1 April 2017 - most of the perpetratators beingthe police and the army.

During the 2017 French presidential election campaign, several journalists were forcibly removed from far right candidate Marinne Le Pen rallies, as also happened at meetings of ex president Sarkozy's prime minister, Francois Fillion.

It’ not just politicians

The general public also seem to be taking an increasingly aggressive attitude to photographers, videographers and writers. While covering protests around the the G20 intergovernmental meeting in Hamburg, Germany in July 2017, I observed clear instructions being given to demonstrators at the beginning of a march on how to hide their faces from cameras - all to the tune of techno music and a dance. There was a palpable rise in tension and hostility when anyone raised a camera, particularly around the Black Bloc and Antifa (anti-fascist) protestors.

At a protest in front of the Kensington Town Hall on 16 June 2017 over the the Grenfell tower disaster, a photographer working for Agence France Presse (AFP) had his gear snatched - only to have it returned later with the help of members of the community. Sven Rosenstein, a video journalist working for the Russian television station RT (formerly Russia Today), was beaten to the pavement - and rescued by the Metropolitan Police. Two days earlier Sven had been filming in front of the church community centre near Grenfell tower when four or five people came out and asked him to stop. They progressively got more aggressive, until one of them, apparently a doctor, threatened to break the camera and beat Sven up. So Sven packed up his lights, gear and retreated away. They followed him for a while to make sure he was not filming again.

At the Kensington Town Hall, Sven was there with a colleague, when someone came from behind to try a grab the camera from his grasp. He held on to it, and was pushed to the ground. He tried to protect the camera as he was kicked in head, and the back. Members of the public were also trying to protect him until a police officer rushed into the pack, carried him out and to refuge in the Town Hall. There he was checked for injuries, and found bruises to the neck.

Bones beaten to mush

On 20 January 2016 freelance photographer Kelvin Williams was severely beaten at a far right demonstration in Dover. Kelvin, an experienced photojournalist who particularly covers the extreme-right movement, was in Dover with other colleagues to cover a march by the British National Party (BNP), the National Front, South East Alliance and other far-right splinter groups. Kelvin said that the demonstration was an attempt to unify far right movements against immigration and to smash the Kent Anti-racism network and various trade union anti-racist activity.

During a lull in the running street battles between the different groups, Kelvin had to run from a group of masked neo-Nazis coming down the street. He tripped and fell, whereupon one of them attacked his face with a long wooden pole. Kelvin raised his arm to protect himself and it was broken in five places - his "bones were in a mush", said the surgeon at the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford. Relief from the attack came when two police walked up the street and Kelvin's attackers calmly walked away. In a state of shock, Kelvin was carried to hospital forty-five minutes later where he spent the next three days.

After a two-and-a-half-hour operation, he was finally able to give a statement to the police. His aggressors had been apprehended in the course of the day and eventually pleaded guilty after overwhelming evidence given by another photographer present on the scene. A racist thug is now serving seven years in prison. Kelvin has only been discharged recently and faces a long recovery with arthritis and, eventually, the prospect of an elbow joint replacement. He now avoids social media as he could be tracked and is very cautious when moving about.

The risks of antisocial media

Media organisations require their journalists to have a public profile on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. This exposes them to online threats, either from individuals or smart groups, intimidating and tracking them and posting severely disruptive and aggressive posts. Freelances, who also oftenneed to have an online public profile, have to operate under pseudonyms to deflect such attacks. Women journalists in particular have been targeted by certain groups and told: "we know all about you."

For example in June 2016 a far left group singled out Louise (not her real name) , in front of the French Cultural Centre, for her photos appearing in a right-wing online paper. A young woman approached her, telling her she was not allowed to photograph. When Louise refused to acquiesce and then moved to another part of the protest, the young woman alerted her friends, who proceeded to harass Louise by obstructing her movements and vision. She complained to a police officer on duty, who gave a warning to the protestors. This is now a recurring situation for Louise, which makes her work all the more difficult covering protests where these groups take part.

In October 2015, in Paris, a writer, David Perrotin was covering the French version of the Jewish Defence League protesting in front of the offices of Agence France Presse over its coverage of events in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and the state of Israel. One protester recognised him and asked - why he was taking photos? He commented that the woman asking questions was doing the same thing. "But you are a journalist," she answered and continued: "I know who you are. I have information on you..." She alerted her fellow protesters and David had to seek refuge in the AFP building, after being chased and kicked by the protesters. About forty minutes later he was escorted by the French riot police away from the protest.

It seems that such incidents are likely to increase as tensions rise due to nationalism, racism and economic discrimination. The change of attitude towards the press in recent years has become more hostile. Some demagogic politicians, trying to promote a populist message, exacerbate the problem. The situation is not helped by the concentration of ownership of newspapers, TV and radio stations into the hands of a few extremely rich individuals and conglomerates.

Deadly violence

Deadly violence has been escalating at an alarming rate since the Balkan civil wars in the early 1990s. It was in these wars that wearing a press flak-jacket made you a target.

The NUJ photographers' branch (most of whose members are now in London Freelance Branch) published public order guidelines that can be used as a template for some of the more extreme situations. Organisations such as Reporters sans frontières, the International Women's Media Foundation, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Press Freedom Tracker, the NUJ and its international organisation the International Federation of Journalists are among those now monitoring and taking action with training and awareness-raising for the authorities and for the public.

Helping members get redress

The NUJ has been able to help members in the UK get some redress. In 2010 member David Hoffman received an out of-court-settlement for an unprovoked attack at another protest against a G20 demonstration, in April 2009. A police constable hit David with a shield and broke his teeth. David received an apology from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who reiterated the claim that the force recognised that journalists had a right to report freely.

Editorial Photographers United Kingdom (EPUK) commented in an article about the event: "The substantial payment and out-of-court settlement makes it unlikely that the officer involved in the assault on Hoffman or any other officers who may have instigated the attack will be investigated or publicly called to account."

Freelances need training

As violence escalates and journalists have to take more risks in order to get close to their stories, I want to see courses like the Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT), which is used primarily for conflict zones, adapted to domestic situations. Sven Rosenstein agrees and has been able to get funding to do such a course. The union must support freelance members to do these courses.

Kelvin Williams told me that it was coincidental that he was attacked: any photographer or journalist who had been on that side street could have been on the receiving end of those blows.

This leaves photojournalists in particular with a stark choice: to cover a protest or not to cover. As individuals we ultimately have a choice. As journalists, as eyewitnesses to the events and changes in our world - there is no choice!

  • I thank Kelvin Williams, David Hoffman and Sven Rosenstein for sharing heir experiences with me.