Two reporters have been summoned to face criminal charges related to their arrests last August in Ferguson, Missouri. Their media outlets, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, have slammed the decision as “abuse” and “contemptible overreach.”
Ferguson police arrested Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post on August 14, 2014, at a McDonald’s on Florissant Avenue, where the reporters had set up shop to cover the ongoing protests over the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown.
When the police ordered them to clear out, Reilly tried to take a photo. Officers then demanded his ID, which he lawfully declined to provide. He was then detained, along with Lowery, “for not packing up fast enough.”
Both reporters were charged by the St. Louis county with “trespassing and interfering with a police officer,” almost a year after their arrest. They could face a fine of $1,000 and up to a year in a county jail, according to the St. Louis county’s municipal code.
Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, blasted the decision to prosecute the journalists in a statement Monday.
“Charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageous,” Baron said. “You’d have thought law enforcement authorities would have come to their senses about this incident. Wes Lowery should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority.”
“This latest action represents contemptible overreaching by prosecutors who seem to have no regard for the role of journalists seeking to cover a major story and following normal practice,” Baron said.
“At least we know St. Louis County knows how to file charges,” Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim and senior politics editor Sam Stein of the Huffington Post wrote, denouncing the decision. If a reporter can be “charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is,” they said.
According to the San Francisco-based Freedom of the Press Foundation, 24 journalists were arrested in Ferguson between August and November 2014, including RT’s Denise Reese. Several have sued the St. Louis County for unlawful arrest. Last week, the county settled with Gerald “Trey” Yingst and Turkish photographer Bilgin Sasmaz, paying out several thousand dollars and pledging to expunge arrest records and not file criminal charges.
More lawsuits are pending. One American and three German reporters sued the St. Louis police in March over their August 2014 arrests. One of them, Ansgar Graw of Die Welt, said he had covered many disputed areas and conflict zones, from Gaza and Georgia to Iran and Cuba. “But to be arrested and yelled at and be rudely treated by police? For that I had to travel to Ferguson and St. Louis in the United States of America.”