The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force is again calling on police and other public officials in St. Louis to establish and enforce protocols to ensure journalists are not arrested and charged with crimes merely for doing their jobs.
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, at least ten journalists have been arrested in St. Louis covering protests that broke out following last month’s acquittal of a former white police officer who’d been charged in the death of an African-American man.
Most of the arrested reporters and photojournalists have been freelancers, or independent journalists not employed full-time by one or more major mainstream news organizations. One of those arrested, Jordan Chariton of the progressive web news series The Young Turks, told Politico’s Morning Media newsletter, “I think police can operate with impunity knowing that there’s no name-brand press.”
Chariton and Todd Bayliss, his cameraman, were both arrested earlier this week covering one of the protests in St. Louis. They were held in jail for 16 hours.
Those arrested during the past few weeks include Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk, who, according to the paper, was working near a group of protesters September 17 when they were all surrounded by police, then ordered to disburse with nowhere to go. Despite the fact he was displaying press credentials and verbally identified himself as a journalist, police threw him to the ground, pinned his head under an officer’s boot, pepper sprayed him directly in the face and kept him in jail for 13 hours, even though his editor showed up to post bail within two hours of his arrest.
Just last week, the task force detailed what at the time was the 12 journalists arrested and still facing charges for seeking and reporting the truth about news stories so far in 2017. After this week’s new round of arrests in St. Louis, that number has risen dramatically to at least 20. One of those 20, independent livestreamer John Ziegler, has been arrested twice in St. Louis.
“Every journalist, news organization and press freedom advocate in America should be outraged by the apparent systematic way St. Louis police are jailing journalists merely for performing their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director. “Furthermore, the St. Louis Police Department and the public officials to whom they report should act immediately to ensure journalists are able to do their jobs without risk of incarceration.”
To be clear, the task force is not seeking what some news media critics have called “special treatment” for journalists. Rather, it is calling on public officials to allow journalists who are not breaking the law the same access to cover events of public interest that other members of the public have.
“Whenever a journalist is arrested merely for doing his or her job, that journalist is not the victim. The real victims are the public whom those journalists are trying to serve,” added Shelley.
So far this year, at least 31 journalists have been arrested across the country. Eleven of them were either released once officers confirmed they were journalists, or had criminal charges filed against them and later dropped. Two journalists arrested during Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day rioting face numerous felony charges that could send them each to prison for more than 70 years.
RTDNA formed the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to bridge the divide between responsible journalists and those who don’t like, or don’t understand, the news media. People wishing to support RTDNA’s efforts may reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.