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Responding to New Levels of Press Suppression: Drop the #J20 Charges

Critical journalism and political dissent are at stake.

A journalist covers Washington, DC, police and protesters after the inauguration ceremony confirming Trump as the 45th president of the United States on January 20, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

In January, Truthout issued a statement of solidarity with the journalists arrested while covering protests around the inauguration of Donald Trump, signed by over 100 journalists and other members of the media, including our own staff. We condemned “this blatant criminalization of journalism” and demanded that all charges against those journalists be dropped immediately.

At the time of writing, reporters Alexei Wood and Aaron Cantú (the latter previously a frequent Truthout contributor) still face charges from their arrest on January 20, including engaging in a riot, conspiracy to riot, inciting a riot and property damage. Their trial begins today. Some of the charges the two face are felonies and they are being threatened with potentially decades of incarceration.

Neither Cantú nor Wood has been accused of any specific acts of property damage or other individual action. They are being prosecuted for being in the proximity of a protest on which they were reporting. As Defending Rights & Dissent and other free press groups state in their letter to the Department of Justice published earlier this week:

This criminalization of everyone attending the same assembly is deeply troubling, but in the case of Cantú and Wood it raises special concerns for press freedom. In order to cover these newsworthy events, journalists have to be present. As the march progressed down city streets, journalists would have to follow it and move in proximity to it in order to cover it. Yet, because of this proximity prosecutors are arguing that journalists are not only guilty of property damage committed by at most a handful of individuals in a march the journalists sought to cover, but guilty of conspiracy to riot and inciting a riot. Under such a theory, the very act of journalism is criminalized.

Meanwhile, Dylan Petrohilos is facing felony charges and decades of incarceration for allegedly “planning” the protests. The evidence that has been amassed against him includes copies of publications including The Nation and In These Times seized from his home, and the fact that he appeared on the podcast It’s Going Down. The Writers Guild of America, East (of which Petrohilos is a member) has adopted a resolution in solidarity with those arrested at the inauguration protests and is calling for the dismissal or reduction of the charges.

It is clear that this amounts to a coordinated attack on not just dissent, but all critical journalism. Donald Trump and his administration did not invent the concept of cracking down on protest and press freedom, nor did they even introduce it to the 21st century United States. But this regime has undeniably accelerated and heightened the crackdown, openly declaring itself to be at war with certain elements of the media.

We understand these prosecutions to be part of a wider campaign of press suppression that takes many forms. Trump’s donors have closed down news websites either by suing them, as Peter Thiel did to Gawker, or purchasing them only to close them down when they unionize, as Joe Ricketts has done to DNAInfo and Gothamist.

Truthout joins the above-mentioned labor and press freedom groups in remaining in solidarity with all those unfairly arrested on January 20 and facing charges as a result of the Trump regime’s desire to criminalize protest. We particularly remain in solidarity with criminalized members of the media. We repeat our call for the dropping of all charges. We invite fellow journalists and other members of the media to continue adding their names to this statement by sending an email to: [email protected].

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