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Charges Against Journalists Raise Troubling Questions About Press Freedom in Ferguson

'If Wes Lowery and Ryan Reilly can be charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is.'

Ferguson, Missouri police pictured August 13, 2014. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Ferguson, Missouri police pictured August 13, 2014. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This week's charges against Washington Post and Huffington Post journalists arrested last year while covering protests in Ferguson are the latest sign that even high-profile reporters are not immune from the ongoing police crackdown on press freedoms and civil rights in this St. Louis suburb.

Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post were arrested in August 2014 in McDonald's while covering the mass protests, just days after white police officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

At the time, Lowery reported being "assaulted and arrested" because "officers decided we weren't leaving McDonald's quickly enough, shouldn't have been taping them." Reilly said police shoved his head into glass during the detention, after which both journalists were arrested and promptly released without charges.

Lowery and Reilly were just two of many journalists subjected to arbitrary arrests, physical force, gassing, rubber bullet fire, and intimidation by police for doing their jobs during last summer's military-style curfew and police repression of protests and media coverage. The Ferguson police department has been broadly criticized for violating protesters' rights to assemble with brutal intimidation tactics, including aiming military assault rifles at peaceful demonstrators and deploying armored vehicles into crowds.

Despite the pattern of repression, protesters in Ferguson and across the United States have continued sustained resistance against institutional racism and anti-black police killings, organizing another wave of mobilizations, under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement, to mark Sunday's one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's killing. In Ferguson, they are being met with severe police crackdown and a "state of emergency."

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It was in this context that Lowery, who is currently in Ferguson covering the protests, received his summons—dated August 6, 2015—which states that he is being charged with trespassing on private property and interfering with a police officer because he did not comply with "commands" to exit. If he fails to show for the summons, Lowery could be arrested. The Huffington Post reports that Reilly "has not yet received notification, but a spokesman for the St. Louis County executive confirmed he will face the same charges."

The charges come just days after Trey Yingst, a journalist with the site News2Share, settled with the city after filing a civil rights a lawsuit for his arrest in November.

Lowery expressed outrage to Washington Post reporter Mark Berman: "I maintained from the first day that our detention was illegal and unnecessary. So I was surprised that a year later this is something officials in St. Louis County decided was worth revisiting."

Both publications immediately condemned the charges.

Martin Baron, executive editor for the Washington Post, declared: "Charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageous. You’d have thought law enforcement authorities would have come to their senses about this incident. Wes Lowery should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority."

"The Huffington Post condemns the charges filed by St Louis County against our Justice Reporter, Ryan Reilly, while covering the protests in Ferguson last year," Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim declared. "A crime was committed at the McDonald's, not by journalists, but by local police who assaulted both Ryan and Wes Lowery of The Washington Post during violent arrests. At least we know Ferguson knows how to file charges."

Grim added: "If Wes Lowery and Ryan Reilly can be charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is."

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