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TV crew: Police shutdown in Ferguson was 'assault on freedom of press'

By Brian Stelter, CNN
updated 3:21 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
An Al-Jazeera television crew runs for cover as police fire tear gas at their position in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 13.
An Al-Jazeera television crew runs for cover as police fire tear gas at their position in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 13.
  • The Al Jazeera crew said they identified themselves as journalists
  • A videographer says tear gas, rubber bullets were fired from an armored vehicle
  • Crew says police actions with TV equipment may have been effort to protect it

(CNN) -- Did police in Ferguson, Missouri, deliberately fire tear gas and rubber bullets at a television news crew Wednesday night?

Photos and videos from the Al Jazeera America camera crew were widely shared in the wake of Wednesday's incident, which Al Jazeera called an "egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story."

The images showed a tear gas canister exploding close to the Al Jazeera correspondent Ash-har Quraishi, who tried to shield himself from the smoke.

Was it intentional? Quraishi's crew members seem to think so.

"We were clearly set up as press with a full live shot set-up," producer Marla Cichowski said in an e-mail, responding to questions from CNN. "As soon as (the) first bullet hit the car, we screamed out loud, 'We are press,' 'This is the media.'"

Cichowski said there's no way to know who ordered police to shoot in their direction.

"But they shined a huge floodlight at us before firing, and I can only imagine they could see what they were shooting at."

Sam Winslade, the videographer, said in another e-mail message that "we were fired at from a police MRAP vehicle." MRAP is shorthand for a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, something usually associated with war zones.

The crew left their equipment where it was, and moved on foot to what they thought was a safer location. "We sought shelter between houses," Winslade said, and then they called 911 and Al Jazeera's New York assignment desk.

A little bit later, another MRAP vehicle approached the area where the crew was seeking shelter.

"We (a group of three) yelled out to the MRAP (that) we were press and we approached vehicle with hands visible," Winslade said. "They opened the back of the vehicle and ordered us inside. Whilst the doors were open and we were outside -- I do recall seeing 'SWAT type' firearms pointed at us. We were helped aboard, and taken back to our vehicle."

On the way back, Winslade added, they passed what he believes was the MRAP vehicle that shot at them on their way out of the area.

Heightening the confusion, the crew members did not know which police force fired the tear gas and rubber bullets, nor which police force picked them up and drove them back to their vehicle.

On Thursday morning, a representative of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department told The Wrap that its SWAT team did not fire the tear gas, but did pick up the crew later.

Ferguson Mayor Jay Knowles told CNN Thursday that the St. Louis County police have been "in charge tactically since Sunday."

Another camera crew nearby, from the local television station and CNN affiliate KSDK, recorded what happened to the Al Jazeera crew. By Thursday morning, its pictures were being broadcast on CNN and other networks. The KSDK video showed police officers placing Al Jazeera's lights and other equipment on the ground.

But something happened in between the tear-gassing and the police interference with the equipment, Winslade said: Local residents came over to the camera position and "played with the camera on the tripod." Nothing was damaged, but Winslade's account suggests that the police action might have been intended to deter residents from damaging the expensive equipment.

Al Jazeera America, an offshoot of the Qatar-based international news network that recently marked its one-year anniversary, said in a statement that "thankfully all three crew members are physically fine."

"We believe that this situation must be investigated along with those involving our colleagues at other media outlets," the network added.

Two reporters were arrested at a McDonald's restaurant near the site of a protest on Wednesday.

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