Arrests of Journalists Shine International Media Spotlight on Ferguson

Police Watch Ferguson Protests H - 2014

Foreign reporters claim local police are out of control

The arrest of three German journalists reporting on the protests in Ferguson has sharpened international scrutiny of the events in the small Missouri city, where protests continue over the fatal shooting by a white police officer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

The demonstrations topped German newscasts and jumped to the front page of daily papers after the three reporters were arrested Tuesday as they tried to cover the demonstrations.

Lukas Hermsmeier, a reporter for leading German tabloid Das Bild, said when police began to fire tear gas at protestors, he and a journalist colleague raised their arms and began shouting “Press!”

“The officers on one of the police vans understood and waved us through but the officers on another didn't understand those instructions and started firing [rubber bullets],” Hermsmeier said in a video posted on Bild's website. “We started to run away. A second shot hit me on the hip, a third behind the knee. I fell to the ground and they jumped on us and arrested us. It came out of nowhere. I wouldn't have thought such a thing possible.”

Ansgar Graw, a reporter for German broadsheet Die Welt, and German freelance reporter Frank Herrmann were arrested together early Tuesday afternoon, before the night's protests got underway. Speaking to German news channel N24, Graw called his arrest “ridiculous” and said it was evidence that police were unable to cope with the situation in Ferguson. He said the arresting officer also refused to give his name. “When we asked, he said 'My name's Donald Duck.' I said I thought I saw a resemblance. Then he tightened the plastic handcuffs behind me,” Graw said.

All three German journalists were later released without being charged.

These aren't the first incidences of police arresting or assaulting reporters in Ferguson. Al Jazeera America said police shot rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at one of their TV crews who were behind barricades and had “clearly and repeatedly” identified themselves. An Al Jazeera America spokesperson called it an “egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story.”

Police have temporarily detained Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post after staging their reporting at a local McDonald's in Ferguson.

The arrests have led to a discussion — mainly on social media — about whether the authorities are going too far and infringing on reporters' First Amendment rights. Others, including Joe Scarborough, host of Morning Joe on MSNBC, have argued that the reporters themselves are to blame for not obeying police instructions.

Bild reporter Hermsmeier said he could understand how “in some situations” it might be difficult for police to distinguish between “hooligans up to no good and reporters trying to do their job” but said, in his case, it was obvious and there was no excuse for the arrest.

As the situation in Ferguson remains tense, with nightly protests, many in the international media have taken to portraying the U.S. police in the area as brutal and violent. Among the harshest critics have been those in Chinese and Russian state media, which seem to have seized on the Ferguson shooting as an opportunity to hit back at Washington's criticisms of their own governments.

An editorial in China's English-language Global Times newspaper called it “ironic” that the U.S. “never ceases to point fingers at China,” while it continues, as seen in Ferguson, “to assimilate minorities in a barbaric way.”

Russian state-backed network Russia Today ran an interview with U.S. professor and government critic Mark Mason, who called the Ferguson protests “the most important … political uprising in the U.S. since the Occupy Movement” and claimed the U.S. government was trying to “suppress the uprising in Ferguson — through police violence.”

Twitter: @sroxborough