Targeting the messenger: Journalists on the frontline of protests

When protesters pour into the streets, journalists are among the first responders. Traditionally present at demonstrations to document and reflect, they are also among the first to be corralled, targeted and injured.

Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project, which monitors violations against media professionals in 43 countries, provides an insight into the threats that journalists face.

Against a backdrop of nationalism, xenophobia, economic insecurity and anti-government sentiment, reporters have been targeted by demonstrators, counter-demonstrators and police. This report looks at 203 verified cases from the 35 countries in or affiliated with the European Union. There were 46 incidents in France, 33 in Spain, 32 in Germany and 15 in Romania.

The numbers reflect only what has been verified by Mapping Media Freedom. We have found that journalists under-report incidents they consider to be too minor, commonplace or part of the job, or where they fear reprisals. In some cases, project correspondents have identified incidents retrospectively as a result of comments on social media or reports appearing only after similar incidents have come to light.

Contexts vary but journalists face risks from protesters and the police, and from being stuck between the two. Thirteen of the 25 incidents reported in the first nine months of 2018 involved members of law enforcement.

Widening the timeframe

The increase in incidents during protests is a good barometer of what is happening inside a country. They show what important protests are taking place, and what resistance journalists are encountering.


Poland: censorship and restricted access cause resignations and protests

Protests and media violations intensified as a result of political polarisation. The ruling Law and Justice Party instituted legislation in 2015 that was seen as eroding government checks and balances. This prompted demonstrations. In March, two journalists resigned because they had been forbidden to report on protests on public television. In November, a public radio station was barred from reporting on protests happening in front of its offices. In December, there were big protests against restrictions placed on journalists reporting at parliament.

France: journalists covering anti-labour law reform protests repeatedly targeted by police

Police forces pushed and hit journalists with batons while dispersing a protest against a proposed labour law in Rennes, France, June 2016

Police forces pushed and hit journalists with batons while dispersing a protest against a proposed labour law in Rennes, France, June 2016

Protests against proposed labour law reforms multiplied under the then socialist government of prime minister Manuel Valls. Nuit Debout, a grassroots movement, formed in Paris and spread to other cities. Incidents against journalists covering protests increased. Photographers and camera operators covering the protests were attacked and hindered in their work by police in March, April, May, June and September. In May, a photographer was banned from covering a protest, under state-of-emergency measures, and police forced a photographer to delete photos of the protester’s arrest. In June, two journalists were detained along with protesters and charged with “forming a gathering with the intention of committing an offence”. In October, a freelance journalist was banned from Calais after covering the dismantling of a migrant camp. “Since the state of emergency was declared [following the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks], there has been greater police pressure against demonstrators and against journalists. The police do not want journalists to witness what they do, that much is obvious,” Dominique Pradalié, of the National Union of French Journalists, told BuzzFeed.

Spain: the impact of legislation limiting protests

Since 2011, Spain has seen some of the biggest European protests against austerity, including the youth-led movement Los Indignados. Passed in 2015 as a response to this unrest by the then ruling conservative People’s Party, the public safety law included fines of up to €30,000 for disseminating images of police officers. In January 2016, a Spanish photojournalist was put on trial for assaulting police during a protest against austerity. He said he was convinced the charge was meant to deter photographers from covering protests and particularly police violence against protesters. In March, a journalist was fined for publishing photos of a woman arrested during a protest.

Across Europe: far-right protesters target journalists

In Latvia, in February, a journalist was assaulted while covering a demonstration against admitting any asylum seeker to the country. In Germany, also in February, a Leipzig-based news outlet announced its journalists would stop covering rallies held by Legida (the Leipzig branch of the anti-Islam Pegida movement) because it was becoming too dangerous.


Romania: journalists targeted by government officials and police during mass protests

In January, days after Sorin Grindeanu’s government took office, protests against proposed changes to the penal code erupted. In a country beset by widespread corruption, the changes would have reduced the penalties for misuse-of-office offences. By 5 February, there were more than 500,000 people protesting – the biggest protests since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu. On 2 February, the government identified individual journalists accused of instigating the protests. On the same day, a German journalist covering the protests was assaulted by police and detained. Police tried to delete the footage he had filmed. On 5 February, a journalist was put under criminal investigation for filming the protests with a drone.

France: police target journalists reporting on police violence and tactics during protests

Journalists covering public gatherings during the presidential campaign encountered difficulties. Conservative candidate François Fillon, who saw his chances of being elected disappear after reports of an alleged corruption case, blamed the media, contributing to a deterioration of working conditions for journalists covering the campaign. “L’affaire Théo” put police violence in the spotlight after officers were accused of assaulting a young man named Théodore Luhaka. A journalist was hit by unknown assailants while covering such a protest in February. Another said he was hit by police after he reported they had used live ammunition. In March, during a protest, a journalist confronted what he claimed were police officers posing as journalists, and one of them punched his camera.

G20 in Germany: violence and revoked accreditations

In total, 100,000 protesters attended G20 summit protests in July in Hamburg. More than 15,000 police were deployed. Journalists were repeatedly assaulted by protesters and police, who used pepper spray and water cannon. One police officer told a journalist: “Your press card is worth nothing.” On 8 July, 32 journalists had their accreditation removed by police.

Poland: polarisation of the media impacts journalists

After the government gained control of public broadcasters, protesters started treating their journalists badly during protests, accusing them of being government mouthpieces (in July and December). Meanwhile, the government kept targeting independent media outlets. A year after the big December 2016 protests, a private media outlet was threatened with a huge fine for reporting on them.


France: protests continue, journalists hurt by police

There were two important moments: the evacuation by police of a large protest camp in opposition to a new airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes in April, and a surge of protests against Edouard Philippe’s government. Both, but particularly the evacuation, led to journalists sustaining serious injuries at the hands of the police. In Martinique, a police officer threatened a journalist covering a protest accusing the government of neglecting this overseas region.

Spain: journalists targeted during Catalonia protests

Protests for and against independence continued. Journalists encountered difficulties with aggression coming from both sides.

Romania: journalists targeted during mass protests

At mass anti-government protests in August, journalists were prevented from doing their job by police. They often had to stop reporting, as it became too dangerous.

Across Europe: far-right protesters target journalists

In Greece, journalists covering rallies in protest at the renaming of North Macedonia were repeatedly threatened by nationalist demonstrators.

In September, far-right and neo-Nazi protests took place in Chemnitz and other German cities. The protests started after two immigrants were arrested in connection with the murder of a Cuban-German man. Journalists faced widespread intimidation and assaults by far-right protesters.

On 20 June, five Belgian journalists covering a protest at the construction site of a detention centre for migrant families in Brussels were detained just before a live broadcast for public broadcaster RTBF. Their cameras were taken away but one of the journalists used his watch as a phone and reported from the police van. They were released after two hours.

Is violence against journalists during protests getting worse?

Our monitoring tools have been in place for only a few years so we can’t be certain about long-term trends, but several factors have exacerbated the situation:

Our monitoring tools have been in place for only a few years so we can’t be certain about long-term trends, but several factors have exacerbated the situation:

  • Defamation and discrediting of journalists coming from politicians have increased.
  • This is mirrored by a lack of trust from the public, which can be rooted in some real problems with inaccurate and insensitive coverage.
  • Images quickly go viral, which means police and protesters can react badly when they are photographed and filmed.
  • Anti-terror legislation has restrained civil freedoms and made it easier to detain people for longer.
  • In some countries, police are using heavy-handed tactics and heavier weapons, with little accountability as to how they are used.

Blurred lines

Recent protests have seen aspiring journalists cutting their teeth while covering social movements. This is what happened to Remy Buisine, who became well-known for his coverage of Nuit Debout in 2016 but tweeted an image of his first press card only in April 2018.

This can result in blurred lines between journalism and activism, with young citizen journalists taking risks to cover protests while not benefiting from the protection that more established journalists enjoy.

Worst offenders

Serious injuries

France has seen several waves of serious protests over the past few years, beginning with the mobilisation against the labour law reform in 2016. After a number of incidents in which journalists suffered violence and serious injuries at the hands of police, Reporters Without Borders referred 10 cases to France’s human rights ombudsman.

Spring 2018 saw another spike in incidents in which journalists were severely injured. On 3 April, during a protest in Paris, a police officer struck a journalist on the head with a baton. The journalist said he had been deliberately targeted and pressed charges. On 11 April, three journalists were hurt by stun grenades while covering the evacuation of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. On 15 April, a photographer covering the evacuation for Liberation was injured by a stun grenade. On 14 April, a freelance journalist was hurt by a teargas canister thrown by the police. Her hand was injured but, more worryingly, she said an officer had fired teargas directly at her face. She was wearing protective glasses and clothing and was not hurt, but the impact left a black mark on her glasses. On 19 April, a photographer was seriously wounded by a stun grenade thrown by police as he was covering an anti-government protest in Paris. Also on 19 April, police threw a stun grenade at a journalist covering anti-government protests and broke her collarbone.

On 22 May, a photographer and a videographer were detained for 48 hours and charged with unauthorised entry after covering the occupation of a school in Paris by protesters. The photographer was wearing a helmet with “Photographer” on it. He told the police repeatedly that he was a journalist. He faces trial on 19 June, charged with “entering a school without authorisation with the intention of breaching the peace [a law passed as part of an anti-terror package] and gathering together with the intention of committing a misdemeanour”.  

In July, a scandal erupted when Le Monde reported that Alexandre Benalla, a deputy chief of staff to President Emmanuel Macron, had assaulted protesters while posing as a police officer during the May Day demonstration in Paris. On 2 October, Alexis Kraland, a reporter who had been filming police actions during that demonstration, said he had been summoned for an interview “for participating to a violent protest”.

Dangerous protests

Hendrik Zörner, of the German Federation of Journalists, spoke to Mapping Media Freedom about attacks against journalists covering the disturbances in Chemnitz. “It has become very dangerous for journalists to attend demonstrations. We’ve seen journalists being victims of far-right hate and that’s not OK, because journalists are there to report and [are] not a political party.”

Intentional targeting

Zoltan Sipos, Mapping Media Freedom’s Romania correspondent, said: “Journalists are definitely getting targeted during protests. A recent case, on 10 August 2018, saw around 10 journalists come forward and say the police had beaten them up and arrested them. Because they were standing in different places, it felt [as though] the police had orders to arrest them, but there’s no proof of this.”

About this report

This report looks at 203 verified cases from the 35 countries in or affiliated with the European Union. There were 46 incidents in France, 33 in Spain, 32 in Germany and 15 in Romania.

Mapping Media Freedom identifies threats, violations and limitations faced by media workers in 43 countries — throughout European Union member states, candidates for entry and neighbouring countries. The project is co-funded by the European Commission and managed by Index on Censorship as part of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Index on Censorship is a UK-based nonprofit that campaigns against censorship and promotes freedom of expression worldwide. Founded in 1972, Index has published some of the world’s leading writers and artists in its award-winning quarterly magazine, including Nadine Gordimer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut. Index promotes debate, monitors threats to free speech and supports individuals through its annual awards and fellowship program.


Author: Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

Editor: Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher, Paula Kennedy, Adam Aiken

Illustrations: Eva Bee

Design: Matthew Hasteley, Ryan McChrystal

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