St. Louis County police are suddenly levying an onslaught of charges against journalists who covered the Ferguson protests last year, accusing them of minor offenses days before the statute of limitations is up. This week alone, three journalists have been charged for interfering with on-duty officers — a full year after their arrests. The recent developments follow an ongoing trend of criminalizing journalists for doing their jobs.
On Tuesday, Canadian TV’s Tom Walters was charged for “failing to comply with officers’ lawful commands to disperse from West Florissant Avenue.” On Monday, nearly one year after their widely-publicized arrest at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post were charged with trespassing on private property and interfering with officers by not following “repeated commands to immediately exit.”
After Walters attempted to ask Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson a question at the height of the Ferguson protests last August, he was pinned to the ground, handcuffed for several hours, and detained for more than eight hours.
On a separate occasion, several officers — many of whom were armed with assault weapons — entered the restaurant and ordered patrons to leave. Journalists, including Lowery and Reilly, were told they could stay, but the officers later returned and told them they had to leave. Both were arrested and detained for not leaving fast enough, and were released without charges hours later. The two now face a year of jail time and a $1,000 fine.
According to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, 19 journalists were arrested while covering the unrest in Ferguson. In fact, the St. Louis County Police Department just settled with two journalists who sued over violent arrests in Ferguson days before filing charges against Walters, Lowery, and Reilly.
“At least we know St. Louis County knows how to file charges. If Wesley Lowery and Ryan J. Reilly can be charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is,” the Huffington Post wrote in an official statement.
St. Louis County police’s decision to bring minor charges a full year after the arrests may be unusual, but it’s hardly alone in bullying the media. When the Occupy Wall Street protests were in full swing in 2011, New York Police Department officers assaulted and arrested journalists covering the demonstrations. In response to the arrests, a petition calling for mayors to better defend journalists and free speech was signed by 40,000 people. Journalists were also among more than 180 people arrested while covering the first anniversary of Occupy movement.
Police have also tried to intimidate journalists out of covering arrests. Members of the media have said they were routinely harassed by NYPD officers for attempting to cover stop-and-frisk encounters, a practice ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. One photographer was arrested for trying to take pictures of a stop-and-frisk encounter in New York City. A New York Times freelancer was kicked, dragged, and bruised by NYPD officers for photographing the arrest of a teenager. Chicago police arrested two reporters attempting to cover the murder of a young girl, telling them, “Your First Amendment right can be terminated if you’re creating a scene or whatever.”
The U.S. is ranked 49th on the World Press Freedom’s Index.