Editor’s note: Equipment searches, seizures, and damage

January 24, 2018

When the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker first launched in August of last year, it included a category of incidents called “Equipment Searches, Seizures and Damage.” This category was supposed to include all incidents in which a journalist had their equipment taken or damaged, whether by law enforcement or private individuals.

In December, in the course of reviewing and analyzing out 2017 incident data, we realized that this category was making things much more confusing. Though it had seemed intuitive to group together incidents in which equipment was seized and incidents in which equipment was damaged, the actual data showed that these were two very different types of incidents.

Many cases of equipment damage involved private individuals, often protesters, stealing journalists’ cameras and phones and throwing them on the ground. This kind of equipment damage went hand-in-hand with physical attacks of varying severity; a protester upset that a journalist was photographing them would try to grab a journalist and their phone and then toss the phone, or punch a journalist and then steal their camera and smash it on the ground. In a few cases, protesters attacked journalists and then stole their phones or cameras.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has a broad definition of “physical attacks,” which includes any incident in which a person uses physical force against a journalist while they are doing their job. If someone body-slams a journalist, shoves them away, or punches them, those all count as physical attacks.

These sorts of incidents had very little in common with the typical equipment search and seizure incidents, which involved law enforcement officials seizing journalists’ devices as evidence during arrests and then (sometimes) obtaining search warrants to search through their camera footage.

We quickly realized that it did not make sense to lump together seizures of equipment by state authorities with attacks on journalists by protesters that resulted in equipment damage. So we decided to restructure the categories.

The “equipment search, seizure, and damage” category was narrowed to “equipment searches and seizures,” and now includes only those incidents in which a journalists’ equipment was searched or seized by law enforcement officials.

Equipment damage incidents are now a subset of physical attacks, since both involve the use of physical force against journalists.

As a result of this re-classification process, which moved equipment damage incidents from the “equipment searches and seizures” category to the “physical attack” category, the number of incidents in 2017 categorized as “equipment searches and seizures” decreased from 25 to 15, while the number of incidents categorized as “physical attacks” increased from 41 to 44.

Thanks to this category shift, the significance of the “equipment searches and seizures” category is now much easier to describe and understand. Previously, we had to describe the numbers like this: “there were 25 incidents last year in which a journalist’s equipment was searched, seized, or damaged, either by law enforcement officials or by private individuals.” Now, we can just say: “law enforcement searched or seized journalists’ equipment 15 times last year.”