Uvalde journalists are blocked, harassed, threatened by the police

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UVALDE, Texas — Reporters had been threatened with arrest for getting too close to mourners, so Houston Chronicle reporter Julian Gill stayed in the designated media area when reporting on the funeral the week after the massacre at Robb Elementary School.

Nonetheless, a phalanx of uniformed bikers confronted Gill outside the cemetery gates. They called themselves the “guardians of the children” and claimed to work with police who stood guard.

“I’m not trying to bother anybody, guys,” Gill told the bikers, in a video he uploaded. “I’m not trying to ask anyone questions. I just wanted to watch. That’s all we can do, right? »

But the bikers still followed and harassed the reporters, writes Gill in the Chronicle. When he accidentally hit a guard who claimed to be a paramedic, the bikers accused him of assault and battery. “As a civil servant, it’s a kind of crime,” the motorcyclist-paramedic said in the video.

A month after the deaths of 19 children and two educators at Robb Elementary School, a picture emerges of a disastrous police response, during which officers from multiple law enforcement agencies waited an hour outside a classroom unlocked where children were trapped with the abuser. But the journalists who flocked to Uvalde, Texas, from across the country to tell this story faced near-constant interference, intimidation and blockages from some of the same authorities — not just bikers claiming to have police punishment.

Journalists have been threatened with arrest for “trespassing” outside public buildings. They were banned from public meetings and refused basic information about what the police did during the May 24 attack. After several initial error-filled press conferences, officials routinely declined interview requests and refused to hold press briefings. The situation has been made even more difficult by the web of local and state agencies involved in the response to and investigation of the shooting, some of which now blame each other for the chaos.

“Our journalists covered [the 2017 massacre in] Sutherland Springs, the Fort Hood shooting, and some are very experienced, having been embedded in the military in Afghanistan, having covered revolutions in Latin America, and none of them remembered an experience like this” said Marc Duvoisin, editor of the San Antonio Express-News. “The interference was so intense and with no identifiable public safety purpose.”

Duvoisin complained to Uvalde town leaders and some police chiefs — one of whom apologized, he said. Some of its journalists nevertheless asked not to be sent back to Uvalde, or confessed to feeling guilty about their work there. The harassment became so severe that the newspaper’s photo editor asked photographers to document their treatment by the police.

A photographer, William Luther, reported that police repeatedly pushed reporters away from a motorcade to the cemetery on May 31: first on the street, then on a sidewalk where a taqueria owner had previously given them permission to stand up. He said an officer falsely told him the owner had demanded he leave and threatened him when he offered to apologize: “If you enter this taqueria, I will arrest you.

Police were documented repeatedly obstructing photographers in public spaces over the following days, sometimes standing or parking vehicles directly in front of their cameras. Officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety and Uvalde Police did not respond to requests for comment.

“The police wouldn’t let us work,” said Antonio Guillen, a photographer at the Univision station in San Antonio. “We were seen as enemies.”

Meanwhile, law enforcement has resisted releasing information that could shed light on how police responded to the attack. Duvoisin said the “information crisis” in Uvalde began when school officials posted a notice on Facebook that Robb Elementary School had been closed.

Reporters and editors could not reach any Uvalde authority able to provide background information for the next few hours, he said. There was no briefing by local police, no reporting of the facts of the events and few, if any, returned calls. The first public address came not from local authorities, as is often the case after mass shootings, but from the governor of Texas, several hours after the carnage ended.

It is not uncommon for public information to be lacking in the aftermath of a disaster, or for residents to become irritated when hordes of journalists converge on a small town. But the pattern of miscommunication, obstruction and intimidation at Uvalde surprised even journalists with decades of experience and led some to suspect it was intentional.

State officials held a disastrous press conference two days after the attack, in which Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Victor Escalon ignored calls to provide information in Spanish (Uvalde County’s population is mostly Hispanic) and lacked basic information such as how long it took from police. arrive after the first call to 911. “Could someone have arrived sooner?” he told reporters. “You have to understand, little town.”

In the weeks that followed, officials declined to release information that could explain why officers missed opportunity after opportunity to confront the attacker earlier and potentially save lives.

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica jointly submitted 70 public information requests to state, local and federal agencies, seeking documents such as ballistics reports and death certificates. They received two “partial” releases, according to Sewell Chan, editor of the Texas Tribune, which has done some of the most comprehensive reporting on the Uvalde tragedy. He said several agencies either didn’t respond or asked the state’s attorney general to review the request — a process that typically takes months.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin last week accused state authorities of selectively releasing information to local law enforcement officials, rather than DPS officers who also responded to the shooting. “I actually wonder who’s in charge of this investigation, because you can’t get a straight answer,” McLaughlin said.

But transparency watchdogs suspect bureaucratic confusion is an excuse for the delay. “It’s a handy accessory,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “It’s an excuse. They can divulge all the information they want.

Senator Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat representing Uvalde, filed a lawsuit Last week against DPS to compel him to disclose his records. A coalition of news organizations that includes parent companies CNN, CBS News, ABC News and TelevisaUnivision are discussing a similar lawsuit.

Meanwhile, journalists continue to face obstacles as they attempt to gather information from the field.

During a committee hearing in Uvalde last week of Texas House lawmakers investigating law enforcement response at the massacre, a fire marshal announced that all reporters should leave the building and wait outside in triple-digit heat.

Journalists were “intimidating” people, the marshal explained, as a CNN correspondent put it. video recording of the eviction.

More than headlines or public fascination is at stake. Definitive answers about the shooting could lead to criminal charges, guide future law enforcement responses to mass shootings, and could reassure the families of the victims.

But at the moment it is often difficult to take a picture.

“I would in no way compare this to reporting under an authoritarian regime,” said Chan, editor of the Texas Tribune. But the roadblocks to information erected by city and state officials, he said, “should trouble anyone who cares about the role of the free press in our democracy.”

Silvia Foster-Frau contributed to this report.

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