A particularly damning image of the Al Jazeera news crew being tear gassed has been making rounds in the media. The image of reporters fleeing from attack, followed by another of uniformed police in SWAT gear taking down the TV equipment makes for a punchy, dramatic image of journalistic suppression. However, the situation seems to be a little bit different.
It is now known that whatever police department fired the tear gas canister at the reporters may not be the same department as came back for their equipment. In fact, those taking down the equipment were assisting the reporters to get away from the gas.
One of the strange things that social media does is it produces the perception of swift messaging out of time. In times of great strife and conflict, it is difficult to get information out of a hot zone in time for context to form—this is often known as the “fog of war”. Actors in a war often use this effect to their advantage by producing propaganda or a narrative that aids their position before actual facts come to light. Social media zings facts, photos, videos, and commentary out extremely rapidly and interpretive contexts form faster than facts can catch up.
Last night, an Al Jazeera news crew got caught in a tear gas cloud and ran. Another news team caught footage of this occurring and even took footage of a SWAT team arriving at their position who then lowered their lights and turned the camera away from recording the scene.
Al Jazeera itself put out a statement condemning the SWAT team saying, “tear gas canisters landed in their proximity and police fired rubber bullets in their direction.” The statement goes on to say that the police continued to fire on the crew even as they shouted that they were press.
People on social media took the dismanteling of the equipment shortly after the crew ran as a sign the police sought to quell media presence. Not difficult to believe after reports of police ejecting media from the city, the arrests of several journalists, and—of course, the video of a tear gas canister being fired directly at the feet of reporters.
In an attempt to get out from under the obviously damning images, St. Charles SWAT spokesperson Lt. David Tiefenbrunn says that the team took down the equipment to help the crew move to a new location. They were also not the SWAT crew who fired the tear gas.
It seems that separate SWAT vehicles are involved. One that fired the tear gas and a second one who assisted in moving the equipment, who were with the St. Charles SWAT team.
Tiefenbrunn also stated he does not know who fired the tear gas.
In statements to the media, Tiefenbrunn opined that the Al Jazeera crew may not have been targeted intentionally and that the police crews in the area did not know that the lights belonged to a news crew. The Al Jazeera news crew, however, noted to the media that they had spoken to officers stationed near their position, and had identified themselves long before. In fact, as seen from the footage across the street, the well-lit position would have been easily identified as journalists setting up.
Much like what happened during the Occupy protests, multiple police departments with little coordination is leading to situations where bad actors (firing tear gas at journalists) are not going to be disciplined.
We are still waiting for the Ferguson police to identify if it was one of their squads who fired the gas canister and how it was that it ended up landing at the feet of a TV news crew.