RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force joined the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom groups in calling on the city of St. Louis to review police-news media relations, following the arrests of at least ten journalists who were covering civil unrest in the community.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has already requested investigations into citizens’ complaints surrounding the police response to protests that broke out following the September acquittal of a white former police officer in the shooting death of an African-American man.
In a letter sent to the mayor, RTDNA and the other groups state, “We applaud your calls for an independent investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office. As you coordinate this investigation with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the Civilian Oversight Board, we urge you to include a thorough consideration of the impact of law enforcement actions on freedom of the press.”
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, some of the journalists who have been arrested merely for doing their jobs in St. Louis allege police officers physically assaulted them and blatantly disregarded their clearly visible press credential and factual assertions that they were, in fact, journalists covering the protests, not participating in them.
In one of the more notable arrests, Mike Faulk, a reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says officers threw him to the ground, pinned his head to the pavement with a boot and pepper-sprayed his eyes from a close distance. Faulk says he was kept in jail for 13 hours, even though his editor arrived at the jail with bail money within about two hours, and repeatedly was denied medical attention for injuries he suffered during his arrest.
In another notable case, independent journalist John Ziegler was arrested twice.
“The St. Louis Police Department’s seemingly systematic approach to arresting journalists has done more that affect the ten or so reporters, photojournalists and livestreamers directly impacted. It has had a chilling effect on news organizations throughout the city,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director.
“Some of our members in St. Louis report they’ve had to take special precautions to avoid police, which has kept them from being able to cover the protests close-up and prevented their viewers, listeners and readers from getting a complete sense of what’s occurring in their community,” Shelley added. “It’s important to note that RTDNA and the other groups sending this letter are not seeking ‘special rights’ for journalists. Rather, we’re demanding that city officials protect the Constitutionally-guaranteed rights of all citizens.”
Sadly, this is not the first time police have conducted widespread arrests of journalists in the St. Louis area. In 2014, about two dozen journalists were placed into custody while covering civil unrest in the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
“This combined legacy is a troubling signpost for journalists' safety in the St. Louis area. It is more important than ever that the city take concrete steps to show its commitment to press freedom,” the letter states.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force early this year to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. Subscribe to VFA updates or reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.