Ex-foreign correspondent reflects on risks for US reporters

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FILE – In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. There is increasing concern for the safety of journalists covering protests at state capitals across the U.S., and in Washington. Packing a gas mask and helmet has become the new normal. It’s starting to look, just a bit, like what foreign correspondents face in the world’s conflict zones. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — In the summer of 2000, I was among a group of foreign correspondents, photographers and video journalists who went to England to attend a hostile environment-first aid training course.

The trainers, all former Royal Marine commandos, taught us how to gingerly probe our way out of a minefield, about booby traps and treating gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Instructors posed as casualties, complete with fake blood squirting from wounds, and assessed whether our slapping on of bandages and tourniquets would have saved lives or led to deaths.

I know the importance of this kind of training and preparation after a quarter-century covering news overseas or managing coverage, including of wars, a coup, terrorist attacks and other violence. I’ve come under fire several times.

This week, now as a reporter in Oregon, I attended virtual training by the state police on what to do if there’s a shooting rampage in the Oregon Capitol. The Legislature’s leadership, for the first time, included journalists in the training after several were assaulted by rioters outside the state Capitol in December.

When I drive to cover protests these days, I throw a gas mask into the car. I also think about safety in ways that remind me of my time working in other countries.

Covering protests in America is starting to look a little bit like reporting from an overseas hot spot. Even before rioters got into Congress last week, producing the kinds of images viewers in America are more used to seeing in countries going through civil strife, journalists in state capitals had been approaching their jobs differently. Some use bulletproof vests and helmets, some organizations hire security, and safety is a central part of coverage planning. All of this was unheard of a couple of years ago.

Thankfully, we are a long way from the kind of conflict coverage that colleagues and I experienced overseas. Alongside an Associated Press photographer and a cameraman working for the BBC, I came under heavy gunfire from Lesotho army troops during an invasion by the South African National Defense Force in 1998. We had to abandon our bullet-riddled car and lay as flat as possible in a ditch for six hours as bullets whined inches from our heads, sounding like lethal bees. We managed to run for our lives after nightfall.

One of my AP colleagues who later came from Nairobi to help cover that invasion, a gregarious American TV producer and cameraman named Myles Tierney, was shot dead less than four months later by a rebel child soldier in Sierra Leone.

While it is still unimaginable that journalists in the U.S. would face such peril, I do increasingly worry about safety. It’s not inconceivable that amid heightened tensions journalists could be felled by violence, either with intent or indiscriminately, while trying to do their job and report what they are observing. We’re not enemies of the people, as President Donald Trump has often called us. We should not be threatened, called traitors or assaulted. Our work supports democracy by informing the people, the electorate, of events.

“Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote.

An uninformed electorate, one that believes lies instead of objective reporting, is a recipe for disaster for America’s democracy.

I’ve seen this happen in other nations I’ve reported from, places where democracy has frayed in part because of misinformation and crackdowns on the press, such as Venezuela under Hugo Chavez or Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega.

Ortega lost the 1990 election and handed over power to the winner. But since he regained power in the 2006 election, his government has been limiting freedoms of the press and the opposition. Some media outlets have been shuttered. A new law gives Ortega the power to classify citizens as “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running as candidates.

Despite serious concerns, I am confident America won’t see its democratic experiment hit the dustbin of history after 245 years. This is a stress test, the most serious one since the Civil War. I believe the democratic system will persevere.

Easing the divisions, however, will be hard to do. What has happened at the Oregon Capitol is a clear example of how those divisions have become sharper and more bitter.

Until last year, protests at the marble-sheathed state Capitol had been relatively mild. There were rallies for action against climate change, against required vaccinations for schoolchildren, and in favor of — and opposition to — gun control.

In one 2019 demonstration, against a planned gas pipeline and marine export terminal, people occupied the governor’s office. They sang and listened to speeches into the night until being removed by police and booked for trespassing. A prosecutor declined to file charges.

Then in 2020, Oregon’s legislative session imploded, ending early amid a boycott by minority Republicans over a climate change measure. Loggers, truckers and others had protested in favor of the walkout, blaring truck horns as they drove around the statehouse. Proud Boys and other alt-right groups have repeatedly clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters here.

On Dec. 21, a right-wing mob smashed windows, assaulted journalists and pepper-sprayed police. Foreshadowing the storming of the U.S. Capitol 16 days later, some rioters got inside after a Republican lawmaker left the door open for them.

Tensions are increasing. On Wednesday, Gov. Kate Brown activated the Oregon National Guard because of possible continued violence at the Capitol.

The stress test won’t end anytime soon.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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