Police apologise over virus lockdown arrest threat to SR News journalist

#The CoronaDiaries

Student photo-journalist Ryan Lim was threatened with arrest while covering the coronavirus lockdown in Sunderland.
Image: Ryan Lim


NORTHUMBRIA Police have apologised to an SR-News student photo-journalist after an officer threatened him with arrest for covering the coronavirus lockdown in Sunderland.

The apology comes in the week that chief constables across the UK have been told to avoid aggressive tactics which could undermine public support, and be ‘consistent’ in how their officers police the crisis.

At least one chief constable has admitted his officers may have ‘gone too far’ in their approach.

Student photo-journalist Ryan Lim certainly felt that was true when he was threatened with arrest on the very first day of the lockdown last week, while out covering the situation in Sunderland. Such work had previously been deemed by the government important enough for journalists to be classified as ‘key workers’ alongside other essential services.

“I was out in Sunderland on Wednesday (March 25), taking some photos of the empty streets. As with most photo-journalists on the first day of lockdown, I went out to cover the story of a dystopian empty Britain, with its empty high streets and closed pubs,” said Ryan.

“To ensure that SR News got part of this coverage, I walked around town for about an hour taking pictures.

“Then I came across a police officer, a constable I believe, and a police community support officer (PCSO). I’d previously met the PCSO while covering a different story, and he knew that I work for SR News.

“He asked what I was doing outside the house during lockdown and I replied that I was doing my job as a photojournalist. I was then told that I was ‘spreading the virus’ by being out of my house.”

One of the deserted street scenes which Ryan captured on his trip out to cover the lockdown.
Image: Ryan Lim


Ryan said he then tried to show the PCSO his National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Press card, but before he could do so “I was told he did not need to see it and that I should not be out. He said he was going to call his sergeant and have me arrested for not being indoors.”

Added Ryan: “I tried to explain that under the announcement made by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden earlier that week, journalists had been classified as ‘key workers’ who were allowed to be out and about during the lockdown period.” (You can view Mr Dowden’s announcement here.)

“But the PCSO’s colleague then said they’d just met a Sunderland Echo photographer and also told him he’d be arrested on sight, and that if I did not go and purchase food immediately, they would arrest me.”

Left with little choice, Ryan went to a nearby shop and bought some coffee, watched by the two officers.

Ambulances lined up outside Sunderland Royal, on the first day of the lockdown.
Image: Ryan Lim


On his way home, he contacted the NUJ’s local branch about the incident, as well as the Sunderland Echo’s newsdesk to pass on the threat to their photojournalist.

“After returning home, as what I felt was the only way to highlight an infringement of journalistic freedom, I tweeted a brief comment on the incident, which prompted a private apology from Northumbria Police’s media team,” said Ryan.

It also prompted the NUJ to ask for further information, though the union is yet to make any response to the incident known.

Said Ryan: “As a photojournalist who’s previously served in the Forces and has done public safety and security duties, I could’ve understood the police officer’s point of view if I had just been a tourist.

“But when I was serving, we were briefed on how to deal with the media – and that journalists have to be given the freedom to do their duties in an open democratic society. I think that this case perhaps illustrates the dangers of individual police officers – even those who do an amazing, exemplary job under normal circumstances – failing to value that important principle of a free, democratic society.”

Ambulances lined up outside Sunderland Royal, on the first day of the lockdown.
Image: Ryan Lim


An NHS coronavirus notice outside Sunderland Royal Hospital.
Image: Ryan Lim


Today, Northumbria Police said: “We have been made aware of a conversation involving a community support officer and a member of the press in Sunderland city centre last week (March 24).

“We have apologised to the journalist in question and spoken to the relevant officer, reiterating that members of the press are ‘key workers’ and are currently exempt from any restrictions set out by the Government.

“We value the important role played by the press in keeping the public informed and disseminating key messages.”

They also reminded the public that Northumbria Police won’t be holding regular traffic stops or conducting roadblocks – but if during patrols officers become aware of someone making a non-essential journey, they will be asked to return home.

Officers will also be checking areas which would normally attract visitors, to ensure people are abiding by the restrictions, and also leaving notices on cars to remind the public of the new measures.

Chief Constable Winton Keenan said: “Policing in this country is founded on a mutual respect, with high levels of public and community engagement; this being particularly so here in Northumbria. The reality is, we resolve issues every single day, by talking to people and reasoning with them and I assure you that approach will continue.”

One Comment

  1. We photojournalists sometimes have tough jobs. All we can do is complete our assignments as best we can under any and all circumstances.

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