Is the new Zeitgeist of Trumpism threatening the First Amendment?
One can only hope not.
But at least six reporters are facing felony rioting charges arising from their coverage of violent demonstrations in Washington, D.C., last Friday during journalist-loathing Donald Trump’s inauguration as president.
Three of them—Evan Engel, a senior video producer and filmmaker for the online outlet Vocativ; Alexander Rubinstein, a correspondent for the Russian government-funded cable channel RT America; and Aaron Miguel Cantú, a writer for the left-leaning Truthout news site—could each receive 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted on charges of rioting.
Late Tuesday, the U.S. edition of Britain’s Guardian reported that similar charges have also been filed against three more journalists, web documentary producer Jack Keller, independent journalist Matt Hopard, and photojournalist and activist Shay Horse.
Keller, who works on the documentary series Story of America, was jailed for about 36 hours after being arrested on Friday morning, the Guardian reported.
“The way we were treated was an absolute travesty,” he told the newspaper.
Hopard, who was arrested while live-streaming Friday’s demonstration near where Engel and Rubinstein were working, also denied the charges against him, the Guardian said, which offered no further details about Shay Horse.
Yet court documents filed in support of the charges offered zero specific evidence that any of six, who were among 230 people detained in a mass arrest Friday afternoon in downtown Washington, participated in the self-proclaimed anarchists’ mayhem that resulted in more than $100,000 in property damage, the documents claim, and reportedly minor injuries to six police officers trying to quell the violence.
After an inquiry from The Daily Beast on Tuesday, four days after the reporters’ arrest and incarceration, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a blistering protest against Washington’s U.S. Attorney’s office, a division of the Justice Department which handles criminal prosecutions in the District of Columbia.
“The prosecution is clearly excessive and we are concerned that it could send a chilling message for journalists covering protests,” said Carlos Luriá, an official of the international non-profit. “We call on authorities to drop these charges immediately.”
Engel and Rubinstein have insisted in recent days they were simply doing their jobs by observing and recording the events on the street, which included smashing shop windows and those of emergency and fire vehicles, setting trash cans, newspaper boxes and a limousine ablaze, and attacking cops with a hurled piece of concrete and a long metal pole.
Efforts to reach Cantú, who would presumably say he was also observing and not participating in the violence, were unsuccessful.
“The arrest, detainment and rioting charge against journalist Evan Engel who was covering the protests for Vocativ are an affront to the First Amendment and journalistic freedom,” said a spokesperson for Vocativ and Engel, who spent Friday night in the D.C. jail and was released after appearing before Magistrate Judge Rainey Brandt of the D.C. Superior Court. “Vocativ will vigorously contest this unfounded and outrageous charge.”
The cops confiscated Engel’s camera and cellphone, according to a spokesperson for Vocativ, and a report by the Atlantic’s City lab site suggested that the police were in the process of mining data from those and other confiscated devices, possibly without a warrant. A Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson didn’t respond to email and phone messages from The Daily Beast.
Engel, who declined to comment for this story, is being represented by high-powered Washington attorney Kathryn Ruemmler, a former Justice Department official and Obama White House counsel. Engel faces a Feb. 15 hearing date in D.C. Superior Court.
In a Facebook post on Monday, he wrote: “Vocative and I are fighting these charges and I’ll have more to share as soon as the legal process has run its course. Thank you to everyone who got in touch, and to the folks at Vocativ, who worked diligently to secure my release and are providing me with legal representation. (Also, I’m without my phone, but will replace it soon. Please bear with me ‘til then.)"
Contacted by The Daily Beast, Rubinstein promised a statement about his situation, which wasn’t received by deadline.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips, a Barack Obama appointee who has held the post since October 2015, generally defended the charges, which were filed against all 230 who were arrested. But the spokesman suggested that some of the defendants will ultimately escape prosecution.
“Based on the facts and circumstances, we determined that probable cause existed to support the filing of felony rioting charges,” the spokesman said in a statement. “The Office determined that this charge—which applies if any person suffers serious bodily injury or if property damage exceeds $5,000—was appropriate.”
But the U.S. Attorney’s statement added: “We are continuing to work with the Metropolitan Police Department to review evidence related to the arrests on Jan. 20. As in all of our cases, we are always willing to consider additional information that people bring forward. Because these matters remain pending in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, we have no comment on specific individuals beyond our public filings.”