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Puerto Rican journalists navigate street protests, police reaction

July 23, 2019

In a Q&A with CPJ, broadcast reporter Jesús Rivera Martinez talks about the climate for journalists amid protests calling for the resignation of Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló.

On July 13, 2019 Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism published leaked chat logs from Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his inner circle, showing how he coordinated attacks on political opponents, sometimes using homophobic and sexist language. The disclosure touched off a round of protests that have seen tens of thousands take to the streets demanding Rosselló resign.

It has been a trying time for journalists in Puerto Rico, who have found themselves caught between street demonstrations and heavily equipped police. Journalists told CPJ they have been tear gassed, hit with rocks, and shot with rubber bullets. On January 19, CPJ spoke with Orlando Jesús Rivera Martinez, a 23-year-old on-camera news reporter for NotiCentro WAPA-TV, a local television station. Martinez told CPJ that he was shot by a police rubber bullet and hit with a protesters' rock—all while trying to report on what he considers the most significant news events in Puerto Rico's modern history.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you describe the overall environment for journalists working to cover these protests right now?

It's complicated. It's the first time that I've seen this type of protest in my generation—these aren't normal in Puerto Rico. And it's a big opportunity—and responsibility—for journalists to give people the ability—people who aren't there to see what's going on—a view. We want to bring them all angles of this big news, from the police side to the protesters' side. As journalists, in this moment we all work as one: TV, the print news, radio. We need to help each other.

Are authorities respecting your right to report?

In some cases yes, in some cases no. I've worked six of the last eight days of protests. There was one instance, for example, last Saturday [July 13], where one of my producers was on the other side of a police line. It was a totally peaceful protest, and we needed to pass him a battery to charge his equipment. We were 10 feet away, but the police wouldn't let us pass. There was no cause—it was a peaceful protest. In other instances, it's been fine, and police have even been supportive or helped us when we're injured.

We've seen reports of violence, including police shooting rubber bullets, rocks being thrown, and lots of tear gas. How dangerous is it out there?

During the nights, authorities have been shooting gas and rubber bullets at the protesters. And I—and a lot of journalists—have been close by, in the middle of it. I didn't think they were shooting at us. But, when we were in the middle of it all, we were getting it. On Monday, me and my photographer were shot by a rubber bullet in the middle of the confrontation between the protests and the police. It was really painful. I fell down. [A spokesperson for the Puerto Rican police told CPJ, "Journalists have complete freedom to cover incidents from the place they consider most appropriate to meet their needs. In recent days, when there have been reports of clashes between police and protesters, the officers have requested the press to remain in a perimeter to guarantee their safety, without violating press freedom."]

Did you have to leave the scene and stop reporting?

I went up to a balcony, right after. A third-story balcony to keep observing the protests. And then, a protester threw a rock at the police and I got hit in the abdomen.

Have you been trained to report in a dangerous situation like this?

No one has imagined this kind of protest in Puerto Rico—but my station did provide me with a gas mask and a bulletproof vest. As a reporter, you want to get the whole environment—and we don't know what moments it will become dangerous, anyway. The adrenaline was pumping, and you really want to get this story. It's an important story.

Did you experience any explicitly anti-press attitudes in the course of your work?

Some protesters were a little aggressive. Some didn't want to be recorded, and some yelled at us calling us "yellow press." But most were not aggressive. We are all humans, after all.

Will you continue to cover the protests going forward?

Yes, I will. And if it gets aggressive and violent, I will try to find a safe spot—though you never know.

CPJ safety advice for covering civil unrest