Friday, September 19, 2008

Prosecutors Announce That All Charges Against Journalists in St. Paul Will Be Dropped

In follow up to a story that was reported and discussed here at the Beacon, it has just been announced that all charges against journalists arrested in St. Paul during the RNC will be dropped.

The decision was announced by local authorities in St. Paul following widespread public outrage at the detention and the filing of charges against journalists arrested while covering the events outside the RNC. Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul released the following statement:

“This decision reflects the values we have in Saint Paul to protect and promote our First Amendment rights to freedom of the press. A journalist plays a special role in our democracy and that role is just too important to ignore. At the scene, the police did their duty in protecting public safety. In this decision, we are serving the public’s interest to maintain the integrity of our democracy, system of justice and freedom of the press.”

While this is certainly recognized as encouraging news by advocates of independent media and freedom of the press, there are many questions that still remain. Nancy Doyle Brown of Twin Cities Media Alliance states:

"This is an important first step, but many questions remain. We still need answers about why and how journalists got swept up in these arrests in the first place. And more than anything else, we need to ensure that this never happens again. We’ll never know how many important stories never got told because their authors were behind bars, not in the streets."

After the arrest of Amy Goodman and two of her producers from the independent media program Democracy Now!, thousands of people from across the country signed letters and statements calling for their release. The media reform organization FreePress delivered over 60,000 of these letters and statements to St. Paul City Hall demanding that they drop all charges against journalists. Josh Silver of FreePress reacted this news today:

"We’re pleased that the St. Paul authorities ultimately acted to uphold the rights of all journalists -- including those citizens using blogs, cheap cameras and cell phones to report news as it happens. Our task now is to ensure that our press remains free to report on the events, issues and stories that matter to our country, our communities, and our democracy."

Part of ensuring the future freedom of the press and of reporters to report on dissent is to critically examine why these actions were taken and how they can be prevented in the future. The statement from the Mayor's office implies that this is how the system should work; police should detain and arrest indiscriminately and then the courts will end up sorting it all out. Instead of assuming that this is an overall success there needs to be an examination into how these incidents happened, how they can be prevented in the future, and the impact this model of law enforcement has on a free society. The fact that so many people rose up and demanded that these charges be dropped is a victory for the people in standing up for basic rights. While this should certainly be viewed as a victory, it should be viewed through a bittersweet lens. Arresting journalists interrupts the important work that they are doing on the ground during the event being covered and this is valuable time that has been squandard can not be given back. Examination also needs to be done over the strategy of preemptively raiding journalists houses and rented space as was done in the case of I-Witness Video. This practice led police to copy documents and photograph items within the property, detain the individuals inside, and interrupt the journalistic work that was done. The following questions need to be asked in this case:

1. What did police do with the information collected from these locations?
2. Is any of this information being stored in a database that can be used against activists that have not broken any law, in future high publicity events?

There is no telling the amount of information compiled about journalists who have not been charged or convicted with a crime during the DNC and RNC. This is relevant and needs to be addressed.

This article can also be viewed at:

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