CPJ calls on authorities to explain no-fly zone in Ferguson

New York, November 3, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a news report that law enforcement authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, sought a no-fly zone during unrest in August with the intent of blocking access for the press.

In an article published Sunday, The Associated Press reported on recorded telephone conversations between officials with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which the news organization obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In the conversations, according to the AP, a FAA manger said of a no-fly zone request made by the St. Louis County Police Department: “They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out.”

The FAA authorized and implemented a no-fly zone for 11 days in August during demonstrations and unrest sparked by the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, according to reports. At the time local authorities told reporters they sought the restrictions after a police helicopter was fired on. The AP reported that authorities have never provided evidence to substantiate claims that a helicopter came under fire.

In the recordings from August 12, the FAA managers discussed options for loosening the ban to allow police helicopters and commercial aircraft access to the airspace. During the conversation, according to the AP, a manager at the FAA’s Kansas City center said St. Louis law enforcement “did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn’t want media in there.” The officials modified the terms of the restrictions but worded them in such a way that the press would still believe it could not fly helicopters into the airspace, according to the AP.

“It has already been documented that St. Louis police officers seriously impeded the work of the media on the ground trying to cover events in Ferguson in August. Using federal authorities to do so from the air as well would represent a serious press freedom violation,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Authorities must respond to and explain these recordings and allegations.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement to the AP that the agency “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.” Officials with the St. Louis police told local news channel KSDK after the release of the recordings that the restricted airspace request was motivated by the alleged attack on the police helicopter, according to news reports.

CPJ and other groups documented the widespread harassment and detention of journalists who covered the unrest in Ferguson in August. At least 11 reporters were detained between August 13 and 19, and journalists reported being threatened by police, hit with rubber bullets, and affected by tear gas. Other reporters said they were threatened by crowds who were protesting and, in some cases, looting during the unrest, according to news reports.