Last Wednesday, Ken Lovett, the longtime capitol bureau chief for the New York Daily News, was talking on his cellphone in the lobby outside the state Senate chamber when he was confronted by the sergeant-at-arms.
Cell phones are prohibited in the lobby. But as those familiar with the comings and goings at the state capitol will tell you — given the number of public officials, reporters, lobbyists and visitors often seen chatting on their phones — the policy is not often enforced, especially when the Senate is not in session.
But this time, the sergeant-at-arms pressed the issue. And when the reporter refused to hang up his phone, the officer called police.
Moments later, two state troopers arrived and led Lovett away in handcuffs, taking him by police car to the State Police’s holding station in the Empire State Plaza.
The situation ultimately was resolved quickly and amicably.
Charges weren’t filed, and a representative from the Senate Republican majority said, “we very much regret the incident.”
Lovett’s fellow reporters — enjoying a departure from the drudgery of the state budget negotiations — had some fun with it, posting a #FreeKenLovett hashtag on Twitter, making up a mock “Free Ken Lovett” t-shirt online and delivering to his desk a cupcake with a file. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo got into the act, personally going to the station to intervene, joking that he was Lovett’s state-appointed lawyer.
But despite the genial way in which this particular incident was resolved and how quickly officials moved to de-escalate it, the arrests of journalists should not be treated so casually or dismissively in a free society.
Arresting a reporter and taking him away to a police station in handcuffs, particularly for a violation of a barely-enforced in-house rule, has a chilling effect on the press and sends a signal to the general public of a government trying to control the flow of information and hide the truth. They didn’t arrest just anyone here; they singled out a journalist.
Lovett’s situation might seem trivial to some, but it wasn’t trivial when reporters representing established news organizations were arrested while covering recent protests.
Last September, Mike Faulk, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was covering a riot related to an acquittal of a white police officer in the shooting of a black man when he was knocked down to the ground, sprayed with pepper-spray and bound with zip-ties, arrested and jailed for 13 hours by St. Louis police. At the time, he was wearing press credentials and told the arresting officers he was a reporter covering the event.
In 2007, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a database of press freedom incidents in the United States, documented 34 arrests, 15 equipment seizures and 44 physical attacks on journalists, many of them covering protests. Six journalists were arrested at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota last year. Nine were arrested covering protests at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. And 10 journalists, including Faulk, were arrested while covering protest marches in St. Louis. Among them was a TV reporter and his cameraman, wearing press credentials and carrying broadcasting equipment, who were arrested for “being on the highway” as they followed marchers.
This isn’t just a Trump Administration phenomenon, by the way. Reporters around the country were arrested or threatened with arrest and confiscation of their equipment during the Occupy protests in 2011, for instance. But the disturbing trend is continuing.
Whether one is a supporter of the media’s methods or not, whether one believes in the existence of a single “mainstream media” that operates with bias, whether one chants “fake news” to express disagreement with something that’s being reported, all of us as American citizens must decry the government’s attempts to suppress and threaten the free press and must stand up to its attempts to undermine legitimate journalism.
America is not the place for this kind of suppression, unless we want to be lumped in with other oppressive regimes around the world.
Internationally in 2017, 262 journalists were imprisoned for their reporting, and 58 are still missing. So far in 2018, seven journalists have been killed.
It’s happening in countries like Ethiopia, where organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and 40 civil rights groups are seeking to free reporters, bloggers and activists jailed covering recent protests there. It’s happening in nations like China, Russia, Bahrain, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Egypt. In Turkey in 2016, at least 81 journalists were imprisoned, all of them facing anti-state charges as part of a suppression effort that shuttered 100 news outlets.
Shutting down the free press through arrest, physical force and intimidation is a way for oppressive governments to gain control over information and therefore control over their citizens.
We might be able to joke about one state capitol reporter being arrested for talking on his cellphone. But this disturbing trend is no laughing matter.
And all good citizens should rise up against it.