A NotiCel photojournalist was assaulted on Aug. 25, 2022, by a law enforcement officer while covering a protest in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Juan R. Costa told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was covering the ongoing protests in the island’s historic district denouncing LUMA Energy, the private company contracted to take over the island’s electricity grid.
Reuters reported that hundreds of protesters marched in the streets in a call for government officials to end a 15-year contract with the energy company after years of recurring blackouts and rising power costs.
Only a small group of protesters remained by 9 p.m, Costa said, and the group headed toward a line of police officers behind a permanent barrier that was set up after the 2019 protests that ousted the then-governor. A scuffle ensued, he said, when some individuals began pushing the barrier and throwing water bottles and rocks at the police.
Costa said one police officer responded by spraying the crowd and a group of reporters with pepper spray. Independent journalist Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco, who was in the group, told the Tracker he was targeted and directly hit with the spray. Costa’s camera was covered in the chemical irritant.
Shortly after, Costa was recording as police officers ordered the crowd to disperse. An officer told him to leave the area, but after he identified himself as a journalist, that officer allowed him to stay. Immediately afterward, two other police officers ordered him to move.
“I again identified myself as press,” Costa said. “I have credentials, and obviously, I'm carrying two professional cameras.”
One officer suddenly hit the photojournalist in the lower abdomen with his police baton, Costa said, then forcefully pushed him back, causing him to fall.
“I cannot stand up because of my equipment, and while I’m trying to get up, the same police officer keeps telling me, pointing his finger in my face, that I need to move. I tell him that I cannot move and ask him to please help me up,” Costa said.
Costa, who recorded his assault, said the officer helped him up but started hitting him and pushing him toward a line of officers as he tried to leave.
Costa’s video of the assault spread widely, with one journalist posting the footage on Twitter, writing, “This is what police brutality against the press looks like.”
In a Twitter thread, Costa said that Police Commissioner Antonio López Figueroa called him to express regret for the incident and assure him that all claims of violence by the police toward journalists would be investigated.
The next day, the police commissioner held a press conference about the incidents. He said police officers were “a friend of the media” and confirmed that he had reached out to Costa.
Costa urged that incidents like his are rare, but important to share.
“I did not feel that this was an attack by the police force, but rather by a rogue officer who disregarded the rules and took it upon himself to attack the press,” Costa said. “Sometimes these incidents do happen. And when they do, we press members take it upon ourselves to publicize it, to denounce it, and to make sure that everybody sees it. Because we're so invested in these kinds of incidents not happening to any of us.”