Charges for journalists arrested at protests raise fears for press freedom

Source: StarTribune

By JONAH ENGEL BROMWICH New York Times  JANUARY 25, 2017

At least six journalists were charged with felony rioting after they were arrested while covering the violent protests that took place just blocks from President Donald Trump’s inauguration parade in Washington on Friday, according to police reports and court documents.

The journalists were among 230 people detained in the anti-Trump demonstrations, during which protesters smashed the glass of commercial buildings and lit a limousine on fire.

The charges against the journalists — Evan Engel, Alexander Rubinstein, Jack Keller, Matthew Hopard, Shay Horse and Aaron Cantu — have been denounced by organizations dedicated to press freedom. All of those arrested have denied participating in the violence.

“These felony charges are bizarre and essentially unheard of when it comes to journalists here in America who were simply doing their job,” said Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Pen America. “They weren’t even in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were in the right place.”

Carlos Lauria, a spokesman and senior program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, called the charges “completely inappropriate and excessive,” and the organization has asked that they be dropped immediately.

“Our concern is that these arrests could send a chilling message to journalists that cover future protests,” Lauria added.

The arrests and charges were reported by the Guardian.

Witnesses reported that sweeping arrests during the parade targeted rioters, protesters and journalists indiscriminately. A lawyer representing dozens of people arrested, Mark Goldstone, told the Associated Press that police had “basically identified a location that had problems and arrested everyone in that location.”

The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions about why the journalists had been arrested and charged along with protesters.

Engel, a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes for Vocativ, a media and technology outlet, was among those charged with felony rioting and released. He said by e-mail Wednesday that he was unable to comment on the case since it was active, but that he was looking forward to the day he could say more.

The document charging Rubinstein, who wrote for RT America, an affiliate of the Russian state-run television network, is identical to that charging Engel: While it says that protesters carrying “anarchist flags” were observed smashing large plate-glass windows at businesses and setting a limousine on fire, it does not accuse any individual journalist of criminal activity.

Court documents for Keller — who works on the documentary series “Story of America” — and for Hopard, Horse and Cantu — who are independent journalists — included similar information.

Jeffrey Light, a lawyer based in Washington who has been working on civil rights and first amendment related cases for about a decade, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of 51 plaintiffs arrested that day against officers from the police department and the park police. The suit accuses the police of surrounding and arresting “not only protesters who had engaged in no criminal conduct, but also members of the media, attorneys, legal observers and medics.”

Lauria, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said it was all the more alarming that journalists had been arrested.

“A car set on fire, windows broken in downtown businesses: I think that this is important information that the public needs to be informed about,” he said.

He said his organization was concerned about what he called “the sharp deterioration of press freedom in the U.S.,” which he linked to Trump’s campaign, noting that the candidate had “obstructed major news organization, vilified the press and attacked journalists by name with unrelenting hostility.”

All those actions had contributed to a threatening climate for journalists covering the election.

The committee had sought to meet with Vice President Mike Pence during the transition, Lauria said, but that meeting never took place.

“We’ve been in touch with aides, and we’re talking about the possibility of having this meeting in the future,” he said.

Nossel, of Pen America, also linked the charges to a climate fostered by Trump.

“Obviously we were girded for worrisome and troubling developments,” she said. “But the speed, pace and ferocity of the attacks on journalists, the purveying of falsehoods, the silencing of government and agencies that interface with the public — for all that to happen in a matter of days puts us on notice that some of the worst fears may not have been so far-fetched.”

Representatives of Trump did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment Wednesday.