Escambia County Sheriff's Office photographs of Atmore News reporter Don Fletcher (left) and publisher Sherry Digmon taken after their arrests on October 27. The images, as well as booking information, appear to have been subsequently removed from the sheriff's office website. (Photos: Escambia County Sheriff's Office)

Alabama publisher, reporter arrested, charged with disclosing leaked information

Washington, D.C., October 31, 2023—Authorities in Escambia County, Alabama, should immediately drop all charges against Atmore News publisher Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher and thoroughly investigate the motives behind their arrests, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

Police arrested Digmon and Fletcher on October 27 on charges of disclosing leaked information, according to a Facebook post by local newspaper Atmore News, and a report by local newspaper The Atmore Advance. Their arrests followed an October 25 story by Fletcher about an investigation into the local Board of Education’s alleged mishandling of COVID relief funds.

Digmon, who is also a member of the same Board of Education, and Fletcher were held for several hours at the county detention center in Brewton, Alabama, before they were released on a $10,000 bail each.

The charge of revealing grand jury secrets is a felony under Alabama Criminal Code Section 12-16-215, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ, and carries a penalty of between one to three years imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000.

“CPJ is outraged by the arrest of Atmore News publisher Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher and calls on local authorities to immediately drop all charges against them. They should not be prosecuted for simply doing their jobs and covering a matter of local interest, such as the allocation of school board funds,” said Katherine Jacobsen, CPJ’s U.S. and Canada program coordinator. “Journalists play a crucial role in their local communities. Arresting them creates a chilling effect and is a gross misuse of taxpayer funds.”

Digmon’s phone and the phone of a school board member were seized by sheriff’s deputies who also served search warrants against the two after they voted against a new contract for the county’s superintendent of education, according to The Atmore News Facebook post.

Escambia County District Attorney Stephen Billy told the Atmore Advance that Digmon and Fletcher were arrested for breaking the law and publishing protected jury information.

When reached by phone, Billy’s office told CPJ that he was in court and not available for immediate comment.

Digmon and Fletcher’s legal representation, Earnest White, declined to comment.