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Doug Robinson: When did Missouri turn into North Korea?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 26 2014 7:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, file photo, police wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer on Aug. 9, in Ferguson, Mo.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

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If you’re not alarmed and disturbed by the treatment of reporters in Ferguson, Missouri, in the last week or so, you should be.

When did Missouri turn into North Korea, and who made Capt. Ron Johnson head of the local police state?

When police are arresting and cuffing reporters with ongoing impunity, we’ve got a serious problem. There’s a reason that protection of the press is the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s how important the media’s role is. The amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

Putting reporters in handcuffs and jail certainly limits free speech and the press.

Those rights are what separate the U.S. from, say, China or Syria. It’s what thwarts corruption and tyranny. It’s what stops government from overstepping its boundaries. It’s what prevents a police state. Whenever someone wants to seize power and your freedom, the first thing they do is control the media so they can spin their own “truth.”

The response of local police after the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson a couple of weeks ago was almost as disturbing as the shooting itself. Not only did police show up in military gear, armed as if they were taking on the Taliban — which exacerbated the situation — but in the process they targeted reporters, apparently to control what those reporters saw and reported.

According to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the following reporters were detained while covering the protests over the course of several days:

Colter Loeb of the Cincinnati Herald was arrested. Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept was handcuffed and taken to jail, along with a German reporter.

German journalists Frank Hermann, Ansgar Graw and Lukas Hermsmeier were handcuffed and jailed. “The street was empty at the time, there was no hint of violence or riotous assembly,” Graw wrote in Die Welt. According to The Local, they were denied water and a phone call.

Scott Olson of Getty Images was led away in handcuffs. “I want to be able to do my job as a member of the media and not be arrested for just doing my job,” Olson said. Kerry Picket of Breibart News reported she was handcuffed with her hands behind her back and told to get on her knees.

Police arrested Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post in a McDonald’s and detained them for 45 minutes without charging them with a crime. Others arrested were Neil Munshi of the Financial Times, Rob Crilly of the Telegraph and Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated. Don Lemon of CNN was shoved by police. Mustafa Hussein of Argus Radio was warned by police to turn off his camera light or he would be “shelled.”

Does this sound like the USA? All of these reporters were prevented from reporting and monitoring the actions of police (and, by extension, government), which is precisely their job and precisely what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.

According to the Washington Post, the arrests were ordered by Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson. Apparently, Johnson has created his own country, suspended the Constitution and is free to do as he pleases. The arrest and harassment of reporters went on for days undeterred. If some small-time police captain can suspend the First Amendment for days, thinking he’ll simply do what he wants and, at worst, ask forgiveness later when it suits him and after the police have been free to act as they please, then what good is the First Amendment? That’s what will continue to happen if Johnson can do this with impunity and is never ordered to back off.

Johnson’s explanation was disingenuous. He said police couldn’t tell who was media and who was not in all the chaos. The reporters identified themselves and were carrying notebooks and cameras and were still arrested. Then he said the police were actually providing protection for journalists, which was equally absurd (watch the YouTube videos; the police were bullies out to remove the media as witnesses to their handling of the protests). If that were true, then why the handcuffs and jail and rough treatment? Why not move them to safety and leave them alone? The reporters were no threat to police or anyone else, and it’s their job to place themselves where they can witness the behavior of government officials.

These are perilous times for the press and free speech. The Obama administration has been widely criticized for its restrictions of the press, specifically for blackballing reporters, circumventing the Freedom of Information Act and illegally obtaining the phone records of Associated Press reporters, all of which impedes the press’ ability to collect news and report on government.

Combine all of that with the events in Ferguson, and America is headed down a slippery slope.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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