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Photojournalists 'taken down,' detained by police in Baltimore protests

City Paper photographer had 'face pretty much smushed down on the ground' by police

A photographer for Reuters was detained and another for the Baltimore City Paper was thrown to the ground by Baltimore Police officers while covering protests over police brutality late Saturday, they said.

The incidents occurred near the Western District police station, the journalists said, as they were covering a particularly tense standoff between protesters, who were throwing rocks, and helmeted police officers, who wielded shields and batons.

J.M. Giordano, the photo editor at City Paper, said he was hit in the head with multiple police shields had his "face pretty much smushed down on the ground," and sustained multiple bruises after several officers rushed at him as he shot pictures.

"They just took me down," he said.

The incident occurred after police had given a general order for people to leave the area, but also came as a surprise, said Baynard Woods, the City Paper's managing editor who was with Giordano at the scene. The City Paper is owned by the Baltimore Sun Media Group.

Protests were being held across the city in response to the death of Freddie Gray 25, who died April 19 — a week after his arrest. Saturday's protests created more noise downtown, but originated in Gray's West Baltimore neighborhood, which also houses the Western District precinct.

Police had broadcast a message that said "something like, 'This is no longer a legal assembly. This is no longer a peaceful protest,'" and warned people in the area they would be detained, Woods said. But officers on the ground had also backed off after the announcement, and there was a significant amount of space between officers and protesters when the incident occurred, he said.

On Sunday, Baltimore Sun Media Group spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik issued a statement saying: "We take seriously the right of the press to fairly and accurately cover events such as the protests that occurred yesterday in Baltimore. We are looking into the incident and are reaching out to the Baltimore Police Department to begin a constructive dialogue to express our concerns about what happened to our photographer."

Capt. Eric Kowalczyk, a police spokesman, said it can be difficult for officers to tell media apart from those disobeying orders in certain situations, but said commanders have given instructions that members of the media are to have access to all interactions with police and protesters.

"We are working to reinforce throughout the organization that media should be allowed to have as much access as they possibly can," Kowalczyk said.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not return a request for comment.

Sait Serkan Gurbuz said he was shooting pictures for Reuters at the same location when he was detained, around the same time as Giordano.

Gurbuz declined to comment on the circumstances. "I was there taking pictures," he said.

A Reuters spokeswoman issued a statement on the incident, saying Gurbuz was issued a citation for "failure to obey orders" and noting he was detained while photographing the encounter between police and another photojournalist — possibly Giordano.

"Serkan was on a public sidewalk and the events were happening in plain view. We do not agree with the police's citation for 'failure to obey orders,' as Serkan backed away from the scene when the police demanded that he do so, or with the way in which he was treated by the police," the spokeswoman said. "We hope the Department will dismiss the citation and, in the future, respect the First Amendment right of the press to lawfully take images in the public interest."

Kowalczyk said officers released Gurbuz as soon as they realized who he was.

"We apologize for the fact that he was detained," he said.

Outrage over Gray's death has sparked protests across the city — including those Saturday night.

Gray was arrested by police on April 12 and sustained a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody, under still unclear circumstances. He died a week later. Police said Gray was not properly seatbelted in a transport van and was not given proper medical attention, and have launched a "massive investigation" into the incident.

During protests following the police-involved death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., journalists being detained and arrested added to criticism of the local police force's response.

Giordano was not charged with anything, he said.

The entire incident lasted about 40 seconds, he said.

"It's really troubling," he said. "When they charged, I don't know what they were thinking."

Police said there were 34 arrests citywide on Saturday and early Sunday in relation to the protests.

View the City Paper story and video here.

krector@baltsun.com

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