California State University Long Beach student and freelance photojournalist Pablo Unzueta was covering a late-night police brutality protest in Los Angeles on Sept. 8, 2020, a week after the killing of Dijon Kizzee, a Black man shot by L.A. deputies 15 times. Unzureta had covered protests since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, so this South L.A. protest, running on its fourth consecutive day, was nothing new.
That night, everything changed for Unzueta. The issues began around 8:30 p.m. when deputies announced the protest was unlawful and ordered protestors to disperse from the area. Dodging tear gas and flash-bang grenades, Unzueta tried to return to his vehicle but ultimately found himself on a narrow block, trapped on both sides by police.
Despite identifying himself as media to the police, having two press badges and a camera strapped on his back, Unzueta was arrested, subjected to derogatory treatment and held in police custody for almost 12 hours, according to an interview with Freedom Press Tracker.In addition, his cell phone and camera were confiscated and not returned for several months after the incident.
Unfortunately, Unzueta’s story is becoming a common one for student and professional reporters alike in California and across the country. The Guardian reported that at weekly summer protests in Los Angeles, seven reporters were assaulted while covering the rallies, with several of these occurring with police officers standing nearby. In some cases, the police officers themselves are the assailants, such as the case with two Los Angeles Times photojournalists who filed federal lawsuits against law enforcement in May 2020 for assault and harassment.
Considering these cases and others like that, our editorial board finds it unconscionable for California Governor Gavin Newsom to consider any action but to sign Senate Bill 98, currently sitting on his desk awaiting this crucial decision as the safety and future viability of the press hangs in the balance.
The Radio Television Digital News Association conducted a survey of broadcast newsrooms across the country, and the results were terrifying: one out of five news directors reported attacks on their employees. As a response against these attacks, 86% of news directors changed their internal policies to include new safety precautions like gas masks, armed security guards and bulletproof vests for reporters.
This bill is also a great example of how legislators and their constituents work together to compromise and move forward important bills. In September 2020, Newsom didn’t sign a similar bill called SB 629 because he feared the definition of “news reporter” used was too broad, putting restricted areas at risk from extremist groups with a business card or appearing to be media. Following this, various media groups and legislators worked together to address the governor’s concerns by changing the definition used in the new bill, SB 98, to a definition already used in California statutory law. In late May 2021, legislators added an amendment to SB 98 that would have allowed law enforcement to arbitrarily remove reporters from a scene. Media groups expressed concern this amendment invalidated the bill. According to TrackBill.com, in early September, legislators removed this amendment from the bill.
As future journalists, we find the current state of affairs for reporters in California to be unacceptable. Since the beginning of this country’s history, the press has served as the ”Fourth Estate" of democracy. This means that the press acts as an essential balance against the power of the government, holding it accountable and alerting the public when the government strays from its duties or acts against the interests of the constituents it serves.
As much as people mistrust and even sometimes hate the press today, at a certain point, we have to recognize that we need them. Who else is going to act as a watchdog for those in power? Who else is going to alert the public when something happens that they need to know? If the government is allowed to act with no oversight, can they really be trusted? Though there’s legitimate complaints that can be made about mass media in general, people need to know that the press is not their enemy. In reality, the press may be the only thing standing between us and a corrupt government. For the press to do this job efficiently, they must be safe first.
Signing SB 98 will make a statement that the press isn’t the enemy of the state, but something that needs to be respected and protected. It will align California as an ally of the press. It will take a stand for our First Amendment rights, which guarantees the freedom of the press.
For these reasons, the editorial board stands in support of SB 98 and urges Newsom to make the right decision when it comes to signing this crucially important bill.
The Coast Report Editorial Board consists of the editor in chief and section editors. One member of the editorial board writes the editorial and this rotates throughout the semester.
Editorial topics are pitched by all members of the board and a single topic is selected for each editorial. Each editorial board member votes on their position on the selected topic and the majority position becomes that of the editorial. In the event of a tie on the first vote, editorial board members engage in continued discussion and state the reasons for their initial vote. A second vote is then taken and the majority position becomes that of the editorial. In the event of a second tied vote, the editorial position will be decided at the discretion of the editor in chief.
For this editorial, the board vote on the issue resulted in a 6-0 majority of the board voting “yes” to the question "do you support SB 98?" Coast Report publishes voting results to promote transparency