U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Student journalist pepper-sprayed, hit with police baton while covering protests in Puerto Rico

Incident Details

Date of Incident
August 25, 2022

Assault

Was the journalist targeted?
Yes
August 25, 2022

Student journalist Diego Berrios told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was assaulted on Aug. 25, 2022, by a law enforcement officer while covering ongoing protests in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Berrios, a student at the University of Puerto Rico who reports for Pulso Estudiantil, told the Tracker in Spanish that he was in the island’s historic district covering demonstrations 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.

Berrios said that evening he followed other journalists documenting protesters clashing with a line of police officers near a permanent barrier that had been erected after the 2019 protests that ousted the then-governor.

“I was standing with all the other photojournalists and reporters when the police officers arrested a couple of protesters,” Berrios said. “That’s when one police officer released pepper spray into the crowd.”

Berrios told the Tracker he saw independent journalist Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco get hit directly with the irritant, an incident the Tracker documented here. The spray covered Berrios’ camera lens and the front of his T-shirt.

Police officers then ordered the crowd to disperse, Berrios said, and he followed the protesters away from the barricade. He identified himself as a journalist multiple times to police officers who were demanding that he leave the area.

“At that point, I was with a group of photojournalists documenting altercations between the police and the protesters,” Berrios said. “Suddenly, a line of officers started aggressively coming toward us, despite us telling them we were journalists.”

That’s also when Berrios captured the assault of NotiCel photojournalist Juan Costa by law enforcement, an incident the Tracker has documented here.

Berrios said he tried moving away from the advancing police officers to an area that had been cleared, but they continued to follow him.

“I was backing away and even put a chair between the officer and me to create some space, but the officer caught up with me, hit my arm with his police baton, knocked my phone to the ground and then pushed me down.”

As he got up and collected his phone, which sustained a small crack, Berrios said he touched the pepper spray-covered T-shirt and then wiped his eyes. He said he immediately went down in pain until demonstrators came and poured milk in my eyes to get the pepper spray out.

“It was my first time covering a protest that became violent, so I was really nervous — I was shaking,” Berrios said. “But I saw that other photojournalists stayed, so I felt like it was my job to stay, too.”

In a press conference held the following day, Police Commissioner Antonio López Figueroa expressed his regret for the incidents and said claims of violence by the police toward journalists would be investigated.

Berrios said he didn’t believe much would come from the commissioner’s statement.

“I feel like our claims were not taken seriously because there haven’t been any consequences for the officers involved in incidents that night,” he said.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]