There is something very wrong in a society when members of the press are stopped from doing their job. Censorship, coming either from the protesters or from the military police, is a sign of dangerous extremism. Last Saturday, during the protests against the World Cup in the center of Sao Paulo, the military police stopped us from doing our job, which is, in very simple terms, to report.
When the riots started on Coronel Xavier Toledo Street, I saw other journalists being indiscriminately beaten by the police. We often hear from our readers that, "in the middle of the melee", anything goes. I have even heard from a photographer that "it you're in the rain, you're bound to get wet". But it's not as simple as that.
First of all, because indiscriminate violence, in theory, is a characteristic of disorganized -- or even non-institutionalized -- institutions. Let's name names: indiscriminate violence is vandalism. Secondly, because I saw journalists getting beaten even after they have identified themselves as journalists. I saw a photographer whose only weapon was a long-lens camera; whose only shields were a helmet and a bulletproof vest with the sign PRESS. This photographer was beaten by a military police officer as he ran down Xavier Street until the Municipal Theatre.
I filmed a journalist being threatened after showing his press ID. And the final message he heard, loud and clear, was "so get the hell out of here". What do you mean, "get the hell out of here"? Buddy, my job is being here. Filming, looking, photographing. I know that the police have cameramen (I saw one holding a massive camera, and another one with a GoPro); I know that protesters have their cameras and smartphones, but the ones who must keep impartial in the middle of all of this are the journalists. Don't get me wrong -- I love collaborative journalism, part of my work involves aggregating contents published by protesters and the police -- but my job is to report.
And when the military police attacks my colleagues, pushes me (I was hit on the back of my head with a shield, which was nothing compared to colleagues who were beaten and arrested) and threatens me ("Do you want to be handcuffed? Do you want to sit there on the ground with them? So get the hell out of here, damn you"), I can't do my job. I'm not even talking about what happened with a group of Black Blocks -- I can understand this strategy of isolating a group and then taking individuals away one by one (although I have seen a lot of unnecessary truculence and violence against people who had already surrendered). I'm talking about the line that was formed from sidewalk to sidewalk and gained terrain at each teargas bomb thrown (farewell, fresh air) and each beast-like attack of the military police officers, who walked down the street hitting their shields, howling and using their batons on everything and everyone.
When they closed the street, I could no longer see a thing. There were only the activist lawyers, a group that voluntarily provides legal assistance to those arrested. They weren't there for long. Little by little, the military cell dispersed them -- I saw them being pushed around aggressively. "I was denouncing an illegality, this is absurd -- this is a state of exception", shouted one of them. Another one who had been thrown off the street complained his mobile phone had been stolen. And I was desperate, blind, unable to report anything, jumping in front of the shorter policemen or crawling between the tall ones' legs. Me, and all my colleagues -- or at least those who hadn't been arrested yet.
More than once I was caught in an area of "forbidden access" or exclusively for police officers and people arrested, and was thrown off -- threatened with prison or aggressively escorted outside. I don't want to be unfair: an officer was kind to me when he saw me trying to protect an old lady who, just like many others, was caught by surprise while leaving work and suffered with the effects of the moral bombs. But walking on the streets of the center, I witnessed an arrest -- a young man being thrown into the trunk of a police car. I don't know why, but he was trying to explain that the chain he wore around his neck wasn't made of real gold. The police officer took me away quickly -- "this is a restricted area". Restricted why?
There is something very wrong with democracy when journalists are forbidden to cover police actions and protests. When journalists get beaten. When streets become "restricted areas" randomly, and reporting is done only by institutionalized powers with their GoPros and cameramen in uniforms. There is something very wrong and especially sad, also, when journalists are struck by flares, stones, and become targets for protesters' violence. Our work is important, too, especially in times like these. Let me report. Let me do my job. And let me do it without (so much) fear.