Washington, D.C., December 10, 2020—The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on the Alamance County Court in central North Carolina to grant journalists regular access to court proceedings and for the county district attorney to drop charges against local reporter Tomas Murawski.
Visiting district court Judge Fred Wilkins has twice refused to allow the media to be present for Alamance County court hearings over which he presided, according to the Alamance News.
According to an Alamance County administrative order from October 12, witnesses and observers are allowed to be present at trials, and, in cases where social distancing to prevent virus transmission is not possible, the court should offer video or a livestream of the proceedings.
Separately, the county district attorney charged Murawski, a reporter for the Alamance News, with resisting a public officer following his October 31 arrest while reporting on a social justice demonstration in Graham, North Carolina. This class 2 misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a fine up to $1,000, according to North Carolina law.
“It is outrageous that a judge would refuse to allow the press to observe court proceedings. We strongly urge Alamance County authorities to facilitate reporters’ access to information,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna in New York. “Furthermore, the Alamance district attorney’s office should drop charges against local journalist Tomas Murawski, whose reporting on protests is a matter of public interest.”
The county clerk of court did not respond to CPJ’s voicemail or email seeking comment or contact information for Judge Wilkins.
The Alamance County Sheriff’s public information officer, Byron Tucker did not immediately respond to CPJ’s voicemail or email requesting comment.
District Attorney Sean Boone confirmed that Murawski was charged and that the case was pending in court. “[Murawski’s] case, like that of any citizen, will be reviewed and a determination will be made as to how we will proceed,” Boone wrote in an emailed comment to CPJ.
On December 8, Wilkins ordered Alamance News publisher Tom Boney Jr. to be forcibly removed from the courtroom, and threatened to hold Boney in contempt of court, according to news reports and the publisher who spoke with CPJ via phone. On December 2, the judge failed to open his courtroom to reporters, Alamance News reported.
The Alamance News and two other local newspapers plan to file an emergency appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals to overturn Wilkin’s closure of his courtroom to the press, the Alamance News reported.