Display evidence against reporters or release them

The Dallas Morning News (TNS)

Prosecutors  dropped felony charges against three more journalists who were on hand on Inauguration Day when protests turned violent. They were among the 250-plus people arrested and charged with violating Washington, D.C.’s, anti-rioting law.

That brings to four the number of journalists arrested that day who have had their charges wisely, if belatedly, dropped. But two other journalists from that day remain under threat of felony conviction, facing up to 10 years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines.

The Justice Department should drop those charges, too, or else immediately produce evidence that the two men — photojournalist Shay Horse and freelance writer Aaron Cantu — were engaged in criminal behavior that day, rather than simply exercising their First Amendment rights to observe it closely and report on it freely.

The department has had more than 10 days to review video of the riot, and to decide whether the two men were telling the truth when they claim to have been covering it as journalists.

This case puts into sharp focus the question of who, in today’s ultra-democratized media environment, counts as a “journalist” — and, just as importantly, who gets to decide. It should be clear that when the Justice Department attempts to make that call itself, it is inviting deep trouble.

Even in dropping the four sets of charges, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington has said little on the record about why these four were being considered “journalists” and the other two are not. On Monday, seeking to dismiss charges against Matthew Hopard, John Keller and Alexander Rubinstein, the office said simply: “After a review of evidence presented to us by law enforcement, we have concluded that we will not proceed with the charges against the three defendants, who are journalists.”

That was the right decision, but a painfully slow one. Rubinstein, to cite just one example, was streaming his coverage of the riots live on social media even as he was knocked down by police. Just before he was arrested, he told his viewers: “I am media. I am not protesting.”

Perhaps the government is reluctant to use the word journalist for the two other arrestees. Judging from their social media streams, both men appear to be activists as well as journalists. Horse calls himself “an anarchist and a journalist” and uses his photography to highlight social injustices. Cantu was recorded on camera explaining how he’d played a small role in organizing the Jan. 20 protests, and notes that his style of journalism is “more Gonzo than investigative.”

Still, his online resume contains links to dozens of articles for many well-known, if also mostly very liberal, publications. He is clearly a journalist, by any definition.

Though the standards of most traditional media outlets bar activism among staffers, the Justice Department should remember that there has never been an ironclad definition of “journalist.”

If there is evidence that either Horse or Cantu helped propel that day’s protests into a riot, and were not there as journalists, then the DOJ should produce it. Otherwise, the charges should be dropped.

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