Six journalists could spend up to 10 years in prison after being arrested during protests against President Donald Trump's inauguration.
The Guardian identified the journalists as freelancer Aaron Cantú; Vocativ senior producer Evan Engel; Jack Keller, producer for the online documentary Story of America; independent journalists Matt Hopard and Shay Horse; and RT America reporter Alex Rubinstein.
The group was charged under a District of Columbia statute penalizing "every person who willfully incited or urged others to engage" in a riot causing more than $5,000 in property damage with the potential 10-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $25,000. More than 200 people in total were arrested the day of the 20 January 2017 inauguration; they were reportedly arraigned the following day and will be back in court in February and March.
The U.S attorney's office for the District did not respond to a request for comment, but local police said in a statement that those accused on rioting charges were "acting in a concerted effort engaged in acts of vandalism and several instances of destruction of property."
Engel stated on Twitter that he and Vocativ would be fighting the charges. A spokesperson for the company confirmed this in a statement sent to Snopes.com:
The arrest, detainment and rioting charge against journalist Evan Engel who was covering the protests for Vocativ are an affront to the First Amendment and journalistic freedom. Vocativ will vigorously contest this unfounded and outrageous charge.
RT America published a story quoting their press office in criticizing the arrests:
Such acts represent an egregious violation of journalistic freedom, and are particularly disheartening to witness in the country that positions itself as the global champion of free press. RT will apply the full weight of its legal team in support of our journalist and we are confident that a thorough review by the U.S. Attorney’s office will confirm that Alexander, who wore his press credentials at all times, was wrongfully arrested.
The national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Lynn Walsh, said in a statement to Snopes.com that any arrest of a journalist in the midst of covering a protest was "a violation of the journalistic freedom we are guaranteed in this country," adding:
When protests happen, it seems there are sometimes issues distinguishing protesters from journalists. We ask law enforcement officers to please keep in mind that there are journalists at these events to cover them but not participate in them and to please not arrest a journalist that is just doing their job. It is also important that journalists keep press badges on them at all times. Try to keep them clearly visible at all times.
Another independent journalist and documentarian, Tim Pool, said on Twitter that he and two NBC News journalists were also arrested during the 20 January 2017 demonstrations but released without charges. Pool said that a supervising officer told him "no less than three times" that they were under arrest.
Pool also posted a video expanding on his account. He attributed his quick release to remaining calm while being detained and carrying cards identifying him as a journalist. However, NBC News has disputed Pool's story. We also contacted Washington D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department seeking comment and received this statement in response:
MPD respects and protects the rights of journalists to have access and the ability to report on events of local as well as national importance. In an event such as the one that occurred during the Inauguration, MPD members are directed to attempt to identify journalists and to not arrest them. Several individuals, who subsequently were properly identified as members of a media organization, were initially detained in the area of 12th and K Streets, Northwest, on January 20, 2017. Those individuals who presented appropriate media credentials or could otherwise confirm to be journalists were released. Information regarding all other individuals arrested at that time was presented to the US Attorney’s Office, which made the determination to charge those detained with felony rioting. Currently, the investigation is being carried out by the US Attorney’s Office.