"Egregious assault on freedom of the press" in Ferguson, Mo.

Police stand watch on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Scott Olson, Getty Images

FERGUSON, Mo. -- As protests continue in Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, police are clashing not just with civilian demonstrators, but with journalists from some of the nation's leading news sources.

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowry was recharging his cell phone and working on his laptop at a Ferguson, Mo., McDonald's Wednesday night when police in riot gear approached him and told him to leave the restaurant.

Lowry, according to an account published Thursday morning in the Post, was told to stop recording the officer who repeatedly tells him, "Let's go."

Lowry writes, "As I turned, my backpack, which was slung over one shoulder, began to slip. I said, "Officers, let me just gather my bag." As I did, one of them said, "Okay, let's take him."

Lowry was handcuffed and taken into custody. Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly, was also in the McDonald's. Lowry writes: "I could see Ryan still talking to an officer. I said: 'Ryan, tweet that they're arresting me, tweet that they're arresting me.' He didn't have an opportunity, because he was arrested as well."

Both reporters were later released but according to a statement from the Post, were assaulted in the process of being detained.

According to the Los Angeles Times' Matt Pearce, when Ferguson Police Chief Tim Jackson learned of the arrests he responded, "Oh God," and later instructed his officers to release the two men.

Lowry and Reilly were not the only journalists whose reporting at the scene of a major news story was interrupted by police. Al Jazeera President Kate O'Brian issued a statement Thursday saying that an Al Jazeera America crew was fired upon with tear gas and rubber bullets:

"They were easily identifiable as a working television crew. As they were setting up their camera for a live report, tear gas canisters landed in their proximity and police fired rubber bullets in their direction. Police continued to shoot after crew members clearly and repeatedly shouted 'Press.'"

The statement continued: "Al Jazeera America is stunned by this egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story."

The Al Jazeera crew also reportedly had their equipment taken by police.

And a reporter from CBS affiliate KMOV was interviewing a demonstrator on camera when a tear gas canister flew nearby, sending the interviewee and others running.

Mike Cavender, the president of the Radio Television Digital News Association told Crimesider that he wrote a letter to Ferguson Police Chief Tim Jackson on Wednesday after hearing initial reports of journalists being harassed while working on the city, but got no response. After the overnight arrests, he wrote again, calling the officers' conduct "outrageous."

"When they're operating lawfully - even in very stressful, volatile situations like the one in Ferguson - journalists should be allowed to do their jobs and have the respect of law enforcement agencies," Cavender said.

He continued: "It seems like too often in these situations law enforcement agencies don't think of the very vital job the journalists are doing and have a disregard for them."

Andrew Beaujon, who writes about media for the Poynter Institute, called the fact that reporters working in Missouri now have to be concerned about getting arrested or shot with tear gas, "nuts."

"To my memory, it's unprecedented," said Beaujon, who expressed concern that the way reporters were treated in Ferguson might have a chilling effect on newsgathering in the future.

"I don't think the cops went out to try and target journalists," Beaujon told Crimesider. "But the net effect is that most sensible journalists are now going to think twice before getting into a situation like that. Not everyone is 23-years-old with no kids."

Beaujon pointed out that usually it's the "cowboys" who report in combat zones like Egypt or Iraq: "I've reported in the U.S. for years and I've never been hit with tear gas - I don't think that should be an unexceptional thing."

President Obama added his voice to the issue Thursday, saying: "Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs."

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for