The Los Angeles County sheriff’s public threat of retaliatory investigation into a reporter is an outrageous press freedom violation, and Freedom of the Press Foundation has joined more than two dozen groups last week in a letter condemning that action.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, in a press conference on April 25, repeatedly pointed to a photo of Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian and included her among the subjects of a criminal probe. Tchekmedyian reported on a leaked video showing a sheriff’s deputy kneeling on the head of a handcuffed inmate, and an apparent cover-up effort subsequently by Villanueva’s office.
After a public backlash from the Times and media and press freedom groups around the country, Villanueva has backpedaled on the actual investigation. The sheriff described the backlash as an “incredible frenzy of misinformation” in a tweet that included an image from the press conference cropped to remove the screen that displayed the reporter’s face. Still, as we explain in the letter, the very threat constitutes an unacceptable chilling effect:
Even where no charges are ultimately brought, the hostile signal sent by these incidents can have a chilling effect on newsgathering in Los Angeles and thus on the flow of information to the public your office serves. And your rhetoric sharpens, too, the acute physical risks that already face journalists engaged in on-the-ground reporting about law enforcement. See Kirstin McCudden, Another Record Year for Press Freedom Violations in the U.S., U.S. Press Freedom Tracker (Jan 10, 2022), https://perma.cc/HTD8-V759. We urge you to change course and take steps to ensure that reporters’ basic rights are given due respect at every level of the Department—from the deputy on the beat to the office of the Sheriff.
We’ve previously written about the shocking and shameful behavior of Los Angeles police, including the Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, and several other law enforcement agencies in the area, when it comes to press freedom issues.
Read the full letter, organized by the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press and signed by FPF and 30 other organizations, below.