Evan Engel, Alexander Rubinstein, Jack Keller, Matthew Hopard, Shay Horse and Aaron Cantu have been arrested. These six men are journalists who were arrested while covering a public protest. Turkey? Russia? No, these journalists were covering protests that took place on 20 January 2016, the day of the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. The arrests were more widely covered on Facebook than in the mainstream media. In fact, the Guardian, a UK news outlet, was the first to report on the arrests. If convicted of the charge of felony rioting they could face up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
According to eyewitnesses, arrests were indiscriminate, with police targeting rioters, peaceful protestors, journalists, lawyers and others. Mark Goldstone, a lawyer representing some of those arrested, told The Associated Press that the police had “basically identified a location that had problems and arrested everyone in that location.”
Carlos Lauria, a spokesman and senior program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 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. 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,” said Mr. Lauria. He said CPJ is concerned about what he called “the sharp deterioration of press freedom in the U.S.,” which he linked to Mr. Trump’s campaign, noting that the candidate had “obstructed major news organization, vilified the press and attacked journalists by name with unrelenting hostility.”
While the mainstream media was outraged, justifiably, by Trump’s declaration that he is in “a running war with the media”, and Sean Spicer for using his first press briefing for berating the media, I have to ask, where is the outrage that six of your own were unjustifiably arrested for doing their jobs?
I do not condone riots, do not condone destruction of property, and I fully support the Metro Police Department for arresting those who were actively engaged in such activities. However, I am appalled by the arrest of those who were doing no more than peacefully protesting, a right guaranteed under the Constitution. Not only that, but it is reported that police used pepper spray on a couple of elderly people who were not breaking the law, and also used batons and pepper spray on the crowd as a whole, not just on those who were actively breaking the law.
But most egregious of all is the arrest of journalists trying to cover the riots and protests, doing their jobs, exercising the right of a free press. One of the journalists was hit in the face with a flash grenade. All six deny that they took part in the rioting, claiming they were only there to do what journalists do … observe and report. A police spokesperson offered the standard “no comment”, and the journalists cannot tell their side of the story on the advice of their lawyers, so we know only what eyewitnesses have said. The arrest reports for 5 of the 6 merely state that “numerous crimes were occurring in police presence”. They state that windows were broken, fires were lit and vehicles were damaged. “The crowd was observed enticing a riot by organizing, promoting, encouraging and participating in acts of violence in furtherance of the riot.” The language does not offer any evidence that the journalists were participating in the violence. In a signed police affidavit, which CPJ has reviewed, police said that they saw a group of more than 300 people, many of whom were wearing bandanas or masks, vandalize property. “Officers from the Special Operations Division moved in and cordoned off the group,” according to the police affidavit.
Without hard facts, it is difficult to evaluate carefully, but based on what we do know, it would seem that the Constitutional guarantee of a free press has been broken in much the same way it has multiple times in Turkey and Russia. I am deeply disturbed that the mainstream media barely touched upon this story, though it may be due to a lack of evidence one way or the other, but even with that, it should have been front page news. When the free press that I rely on to keep me informed of what is going on in the nation and around the globe is stifled, I want to know about it. I have every right to know about it, and so does the rest of the country. Even in the absence of facts, the one fact that was indisputable was that the journalists were arrested and charged with felony rioting. If the press had reported only that and indicated that further information was pending, it would have been enough. But I find their silence to be ominous. As Hugh Curtler recently pointed out in a post, silence is not always golden, sometimes it is dark, deceitful and frightening.
Since the attempted coup in July, Turkey has jailed at least 81 journalists in relation to their work, and dozens more for unknown reasons. Since I have covered all this in past posts, I won’t beat a dead horse, but I merely wish to note that Turkey is also a democracy, and look what has happened … is still happening. We cannot allow the U.S. to take away our rights one by one, and we definitely must protect, guard and cherish our right to factual information, not ‘alternative facts’. I call on the press, once again, to get busy and start reporting on the things we need to know, rather than the red herrings and spin that the administration if feeding you in hopes of keeping our focus away from what is happening behind the gauzy curtain!