The 37-mile no-fly zone around Ferguson, implemented after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in August, was designed to keep the press out, phone recordings obtained by AP via the Freedom of Information Act reveal.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed a 12-day no-fly zone in compliance with requests from local police after protests erupted in response to the August 9th police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen. At the time, the official reason given for the restriction was safety precautions. However, in audio recordings, officials are heard admitting that the real reason for the flight restriction was to keep news helicopters from flying over the St. Louis suburb.
The St. Louis Police department maintained that the restricted fly zone was instituted in response to shots fired at a police helicopter, although they were not able to provide an incident report on the shooting, according to AP.
FAA air traffic controllers attempted to reword the flight ban, which had initially banned all air traffic in the 37-mile radius, to let commercial flights operate at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, but prohibit other flights, on August 12th, the day after the restriction was first established.
Effectively putting an end to media presence in the skies, the amended restriction read, “Only relief aircraft operations under direction of St. Louis County Police Department are authorized in the airspace. Aircraft landing and departing St. Louis Lambert Airport are exempt.”
An FAA manger was recorded saying that the police “did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn’t want media in there.”
Police wanted to extend the ban following the release of the shooting officer’s identity, which was lifted on August 22nd, reports AP.
Police response to the civic unrest in Ferguson has been widely criticized. Use of tear gas, accusations of excessive force, and journalist arrests were reported.
The recordings raise further concern about police conduct and the compliance of the federal government in suppressing the constitutional rights of journalists.
One FAA official is heard asking a manger about the purpose of the ban, acknowledging the problematic nature of a media specific restriction.
“So are [the police] protecting aircraft from small-arms fire or something?” he asked. “Or do they think they’re just going to keep the press out of there, which they can’t do.”
Michael Huerta, an FAA administrator, denied the national agency was compliant in banning media from Ferguson airspace.
“FAA cannot and will never exclusively ban media from covering an event of national significance, and media was never banned from covering the ongoing events in Ferguson in this case,” he said in statement on Sunday.