New York, March 3, 2021 – Local authorities in Iowa, Massachusetts, and North Carolina should drop all charges against journalists who were arrested while doing their jobs, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
This month, three journalists who are facing charges are scheduled to appear in court in relation to their coverage of protests and rallies in 2020: Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri, Alamance News reporter Tomas Murawski, and freelance photojournalist Richard Cummings, according to Sahouri, Cummings, and Alamance News publisher Tom Boney Jr., all of whom spoke to CPJ in phone interviews and via email.
“It is disheartening that prosecutors would continue to pursue charges against reporters who were merely doing their jobs and reporting on events of public interest in their communities,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “Arresting members of the press is not acceptable and authorities should drop these prosecutions; local governments should encourage scrutiny and transparency rather than punish those trying to deliver it.”
On May 31, 2020, police in Des Moines, Iowa, pepper-sprayed and arrested Sahouri while she was covering a protest against police brutality, she told CPJ and posted on social media.
The Polk County prosecutor subsequently charged her with two misdemeanors: failure to disperse, which is punishable by a fine between $65 and $625, or prison in lieu of a fine, and interference with official acts, which carries a fine of at least $250, according to her employer and Iowa state law.
Sahouri has pleaded not guilty, and her trial is set to begin on March 8, according to the Register.
Police arrested Cummings on June 1, while he was filming a police brutality protest as part of an ongoing documentary film project in Worcester, Massachusetts, he told CPJ. He said he identified himself as a freelance journalist at the time of his arrest.
Authorities charged him with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and failure to disperse during a riot; at a November 20 court hearing, the disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace charges were dismissed, he told CPJ.
Cummings has pleaded not guilty to failing to disperse during a riot, and is scheduled to appear in court on March 8, he said. If convicted, he faces up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $500, according to Massachusetts law.
On October 21, police in Graham, North Carolina, arrested Murawski while he was covering a march encouraging voter turnout, and charged him with resisting a public officer, according to Alamance county court records and Tom Boney Jr. That offense is a Class 2 misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a fine up to $1,000, according to North Carolina law.
Murawski is scheduled to appear in court on March 31, according to the court records.
At the time this article was published, two freelance reporters, Vishal Singh and Sean Beckner-Carmitchel, told CPJ in phone calls and emails that they had court hearings in Los Angeles scheduled for March 9 for allegedly failing to disperse while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in the city on November 4; they said they had not been formally charged with any crime.
Following the initial publication of this article on March 3, Rob Wilcox, the Los Angeles city attorney’s community engagement and outreach director, emailed a statement to CPJ saying that the city had declined to file charges against Singh and Beckner-Carmitchel for their coverage of those protests.
In phone call with CPJ, the Worcester district attorney’s office deputy communications director, Paul Jarvey, said that the office was unable to comment on open cases.
The Polk County district attorney’s office and Alamance County District Attorney Sean Boone did not return CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.
[Editors’ note: This article has been updated to include a response from Los Angeles city attorney representative Rob Wilcox.]