UPDATE, January 30, 2:59 p.m.: The U.S. Attorney’s Office on Monday dropped all charges against three more reporters: Matt Hopard, Jack Keller, and Alexander Rubinstein.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia on Friday dismissed felony rioting charges brought against one of several journalists arrested while allegedly covering protests during the presidential inauguration.
Federal prosecutors cleared Vocativ reporter Evan Engel of all charges, one week after D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) rounded up and arrested about 230 people after some of the demonstrators began destroying property to protest the swearing-in of President Donald Trump. Eight of those arrested and charged with the most serious offense level under D.C.’s rioting law (punishable by up to ten years in prison) have identified themselves as journalists covering the demonstrations.
In addition to the journalists covering, photographing, and filming the protests, the crowd included lawyers and observers reportedly not involved in vandalism, according to various media accounts.
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“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia today filed a notice seeking the dismissal of the felony rioting charge filed against Evan A. Engel,” Bill Miller, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in a statement emailed to Rewire. “After consultation with the counsel for Mr. Engel, who is a journalist with Vocativ, as well as a review of evidence presented to us by law enforcement, we have concluded that we will not proceed with the charge against this individual. We are continuing to work with the Metropolitan Police Department to review evidence related to the arrests on January 20.”
The other journalists charged with rioting-related felonies, according to D.C. Superior Court records, include self-described independent journalists Aaron Cantú, Matt Hopard, Shay Horse, Alexander Stokes Contompasis (who publishes videos under the name Alex Stokes), and Alexei Wood; documentary-film producer Jack Keller; and RT America reporter Alexander Rubinstein. The D.C.-based media advocacy nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is monitoring these journalists’ cases.
Cantú, a freelance reporter based in New York City, told Rewire by phone that to his knowledge, neither protesters nor members of the media who identified as such were given an opportunity by police to disperse. Defense attorneys in a class action lawsuit filed by a protester allege that police illegally trapped—and then indiscriminately arrested—protesters not engaged in criminal conduct, without warning.
The Washington Post reported that journalists, observers, and protesters witnessed police using chemical irritants to try to control the crowd. Cantú did not give an extensive interview, saying he did not want to jeopardize his legal case. He emphasized his innocence of all rioting charges, as have the other charged journalists in various media interviews.
The federal government began prosecuting reporters one day after the swearing-in of the United States’ 45th president, who on the campaign trail hinted that his administration would be open to prosecuting journalists and “open[ing] up” libel laws, specifically for false reporting. These charges come at a time when tensions between the Trump administration and the U.S. press seem to be intensifying by the day. Last week, chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon—former executive chairman to media company Breitbart News—in an interview with the New York Times called the media “the opposition party” to the executive branch and said “the media” should “keep its mouth shut.”
New York-based filmmaker Annabel Park, who is a co-director and producer of the web documentary series Story of America and Keller’s editor, told Rewire in a phone interview that she is “alarmed” by the felony charges against journalists, coupled with the anti-press sentiment from the new White House.
“It’s alarming that you can have reporters be charged with a felony when they were not in any way rioting,” Park said. “If we have to go through this kind of legal action every time we want to report something, what does that mean for journalists, what does that mean for a free press?”
Park said she was particularly disturbed by the way Keller described his treatment by police. Park said Keller and others were allegedly detained for approximately 14 hours outside under the rain before being taken to jail, without access to the bathroom, food, or water. She told Rewire that Keller has been advised by his attorney not to speak to reporters.
MPD declined to comment for this story.
Keller is among many of those arrested who say their cell phones were seized, a fact that concerns press advocates, particularly in an era when so much sensitive data is stored on journalists’ smartphones.
The Atlantic’s CityLab reported last week that some of the arrestees had received suspicious messages raising concerns that federal officials were mining data from cell phones. CityLab noted that it was difficult to confirm if the messages were due to human activity or automatic updates performed by the phone.
Protections exist to prevent prosecutors from confiscating and searching journalists’ materials without the proper authority from the attorney general and only if the press materials are connected to a criminal investigation. The Justice Department in 2015 revised its internal guidelines for issuing subpoenas and search warrants to journalists to offer greater protections to the news media.
Attorney Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which lobbied for these updated guidelines, told Rewire the attorney general should have to comply with the Justice Department guidelines.
“We think there really should be serious precaution taken before you start searching a journalist’s phone,” Leslie said. “Because there could be source information. There could be things absolutely unrelated to this matter. So, they really should follow the steps of the attorney general’s guidelines and get approval and make sure they’re not taking anything that isn’t related to the direct charges against the journalist.”
The question, of course, is whether the prosecutors in Trump’s administration will follow this protocol. Trump’s attorney general pick, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), has said he is “not sure” whether he will prosecute journalists for doing their jobs.
The Reporters Committee is among several media advocacy groups calling on the U.S. Attorney’s Office to dismiss the rioting charges against these reporters. Given what the organization knows of the reporters’ cases, Leslie said that if prosecutors cannot provide evidence showing these people were involved in inciting a riot, they should be dismissed.
“I would hope that it will become clear that some of these people were definitely there just as journalists and it would be ridiculous to prosecute them for inciting a riot,” he said.
Texas-based attorney Charles “Chip” Babcock, who frequently represents members of the media, told Rewire that while arresting and prosecuting journalists during protests is nothing new, recent statements made by the new president and his staff raise concerns about how members of the media will be treated under this administration.
“[Trump’s] rhetoric about the press since [the election] have led me, as somebody who represents the press all the time, to be very concerned that the tools that are at the disposal of an administration to harass journalists might come into play,” Babcock said. “I hope they don’t. But I think I would have to be candid and say I’m more concerned today than I was in the first week in November.”