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Can journalists and police work out ground rules to avoid arrest during RNC 2012 in Tampa?

journalists_arrested.jpgBack in 2008, the last Republican National Convention boasted a surprising statistic: about four dozen journalists were arrested during the event, taken into custody while trying to report on protesters, police and demonstrations outside the gathering.

Some of the journalists who reported from those scenes in St. Paul, Minn. say one big problem was that police didn't differentiate between protesters and journalists, sweeping everyone up in mass arrests, even when it was obvious journalists were professional reporters simply observing the action.

Which raises an interesting question: Could this happen in Tampa?

That's why I worked with reporter Jessica Vander Velde to produce this report, taking a look at the concerns of both police and journalists about what may happen to reporters if law enforcement orders all people to clear an area where news is happening.

6a00d8341c630a53ef00e554ddf4758833-800wi.jpgTampa police say they want to avoid a repeat of what happened in Minnesota, where some journalists say they were arrested in circumstances where there was no chaos or disorder.

The city of St. Paul later dropped charges against most of the journalists who were arrested.

Most notably, Amy Goodman, host of the liberal radio and TV show Democracy Now, was taken into custody with two staffers, later sued law enforcement and negotiated a settlement for $100,000, along with promises local police would be better trained.

"It was so out of control and ridiculous," Goodman said recently, noting that she and the staffers were clearly identified as journalists.

A YouTube video showing her arrest now has over 1 million views and sparked a huge controversy at the time. Later at the convention, a large gathering of people were herded onto a bridge and arrested, including many credentialed journalists.

Journalists fear a situation where reporters are discouraged from covering conditions outside the RNC, especially when protesters clash with police. Law enforcement says it is logistically impossible to distinguish between people in such crisis situations, saying everyone should obey officers' orders to leave an area.

Jane Kirtley, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, said the biggest problem in 2008 was a lack of training.

With a host of different law enforcement agencies providing crowd control, there were no clear rules on how journalists were to be treated.

Kirtley suggests Tampa police have press liaisons travel with contingents of officers to handle problems as they occur. She also says police or city officials might consider credentialing some journalists, who would be allowed to remain in areas where the general public has been ordered away.

"As much as I hate the notion of the government licensing journalists, I think the lack of a credential really helped contribute to the problems," Kirtley said.

But Tampa police likely will not issues credentials, declining to define who is and isn't a journalist in an age of social media where everyone carries a camera and Internet platform in their cellphone.

Below is the video of Goodman's arrest. Police plan to meet with area journalism organizations in the weeks to come to talk over the logistics of coverage and avoiding situations like the one shown below:

 

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 7:53am]

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