from the not-so-free-press dept
We're in something of an era of firsts here in America. We have our first billionaire President, for instance. Add to that that, on his first day as President Elect, Donald Trump saw fit to take to Twitter to take aim at the First Amendment. Fears for what a Trump presidency means for the rights of the press and for free speech rights have compounded since then, supercharged by Trump himself, who has constructed a narrative in which the press is his foil, either because he truly believes that's the case or out of pure political expediency. Whichever the case, we had another first as on the very day of Trump's inauguration, his first day officially as President of the United States, police managed to arrest and charge six journalists for the crime of covering the protests coinciding with the ceremony.
There had already been reports of two such arrests, but we now learn of four more.
A documentary producer, a photojournalist, a live-streamer and a freelance reporter were each charged with the most serious level of offense under Washington DC’s law against rioting, after being caught up in the police action against demonstrators.
The Guardian learned of their arrests after reporting on Monday that the journalists Evan Engel of Vocativ and Alex Rubinstein of RT America had also been arrested and charged with felonies while covering the same unrest on Friday morning.
Six arrests, six journalists charged, and six arraignments and releases pending future hearings in the coming months. The arrest reports for each are remarkably free of any detail on specific actions these individuals are to have undertaken which would violate the law.
None of the arrest reports for the six journalists makes any specific allegations about what any of them are supposed to have done wrong. Keller’s report, which also covers the arrests of an unknown number of unidentified other people, includes a note that a police vehicle was vandalized. “I had absolutely nothing to do with the vandalism,” said Keller.
Reports on the arrests of five of the six journalists contain identical language alleging 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 police reports said.
One of the privileges of American law is typically that it avoids levying legal responsibility on one individual for the actions of others. There's little sense generally in pointing at a crowd of people, a percentage of which are engaging in unlawful behavior, and tossing a legal net over them all. There's even less sense in this when the net catches members of the press, who the public relies on for reporting on newsworthy events. And there's even less sense still when the reporting is on a political matter.
Now, it's not as though it was only upon President Trump's inauguration that journalists were suddenly being arrested while performing their jobs. It happened on several occasions under Barrack Obama, beacon of transparency and press access though he claimed to be. Instead, this is something of a continuation of an attack on a free and open press, buttressed by a President engaged in open warfare with any press outlets he doesn't find favorable.
The signals have been sent since before his inauguration and since: access and information is going to be cut off. In response, several press outlets have announced investments into their investigative reporting teams. If the arrest of those journalists covering their stories continues to be accepted, that doesn't leave the public with much of a press at all.