“Their Only Weapons Were Their Cameras”: Press Freedom in Puerto Rico

By Michelle Chen Sep 11, 2009

Civil liberties advocates are taking their fight to defend free speech all the way to America’s most famous colonial outpost. The ACLU is appealing a federal court’s decision in support of the FBI in a free speech case in Puerto Rico. According to the federal district court’s ruling, FBI agents shouldn’t be penalized for misconduct in a clash with local journalists—or more specifically, an attack on Puerto Rican reporters who questioned the government’s probe of a leading activist. The case, brought by the Puerto Rico Journalists’ Association in 2007, looks like a straightforward matter of free speech. The backstory, however, traces a long legacy of government impunity and political disenfranchisement. The violence erupted when reporters approached the FBI officers as they ended a search of the home of Liliana Laboy, an activist with the Puerto Rican independence movement. In an official testimony, Laboy recalled that after the FBI descended on her home, the search scene turned into a public demonstration:

During my conversation with my lawyers, other heavily armed men, including some with their faces covered like ninjas, entered the building. In the parking lot, which is behind the building, there were an astonishing number of these men in combat attire and attitude. The residents were not permitted to enter the building and many were in the parking lot in solidarity with my plight. They know me for my contributions to the community and my peaceful way of life so they were amazed at the unnecessary show of force set out to search the home of a woman who is not more than five feet tall and who lives alone. … In front of my building there were many students, teachers, university professors, workers, men and women and even some children, protesting the operative. They were there to accompany and protect me because nobody in Puerto Rico trusts the FBI. They are abusive and arrogant, and after the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos [a fellow activist], nobody feels safe when there is a bunch of FBI’s around. There also were the journalists doing their jobs. Their only "weapons," as usual, were their cameras, recorders and microphones.

Soon, the ACLU argues, officers responded with savage force. The journalists at the scene, including several television and radio reporters, were “without provocation, pushed, punched, hit by metal batons, and pepper sprayed in the face by federal agents.” Appalling, maybe, but it comes with the territory. The history of radical resistance in Puerto Rico is laced with government oppression and intimidation. More recent crackdowns on activists indicates that state violence and unaccountability continues to challenge the independence movement today. The district court ruled in 2007 that the FBI’s actions were aimed at maintaining public order and did not rise to the level of excessive force. “It is impossible to gauge exactly what measure of force would have been necessary to control the crowd at 444 De Diego Avenue and to maintain peace in the face of a potentially escalating situation,” wrote the judge. Yes, it must have been tricky to calibrate just how much violence to impose on protesters in order to maintain “peace.” After all, the feds weren’t just up against civilian bystanders and a vigilant press corps—they had a legacy of institutionalized racism, poverty and colonialism to contend with. Although Laboy testified that she didn’t directly observe the melee, from a veteran dissident’s perspective, she placed the incident in historical context:

Beyond the aggression that the journalists suffered and what that means in terms of the freedom of the press and the right of the people to be informed, there is a something of equal, if not more importance at play here. This is the persecution that for almost a century has been suffered by those who believe and strive for the Puerto Rican sovereignty and independence.

The right to free speech is fundamental for all Americans, but First Amendment struggles burn hotter for those who have never been treated as full citizens. Even if the FBI is not ultimately punished for its conduct, the case will at least shine some light on an often-ignored freedom struggle—bearing witness to the corruption that Puerto Rican journalists have suffered mightily to expose. Image: IndymediaPR.org