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Journalism is not a crime


On May 15, New Mexico State Police and campus officers at the University of New Mexico tore down an encampment that had been established by protesters calling for a cease-fire in Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. According to local reports, seven people were arrested. Two of these were not protesters, but journalists covering the operation: Bryant Furlow and Tara Armijo-Prewitt, both contributors to New Mexico In Depth.

In a statement last week, Furlow said he and Armijo-Prewitt, a photojournalist who had been documenting the UNM protests for weeks, followed standard professional practices by asking whether a public information officer for the police was on site and where media would be permitted to stand, following instructions and standing behind yellow tape marking the police perimeter. After asking a state police officer for their name and badge number, Furlow said they were both arrested, held in custody for 12 hours and charged with criminal trespass and wrongful use of public property.

It could easily have been us: On May 9, two reporters for the Las Cruces Bulletin covered the arrests of protesters at New Mexico State University, observing and documenting police operations and gathering information from authorities on scene. It should not be a matter of luck that we were treated by local officers with professionalism and allowed to do our jobs without facing arrest and criminal charges. The treatment of journalists should never depend on the whim of a uniformed officer, such as when a television correspondent in Ohio was ordered to halt a broadcast last year because the head of the state’s National Guard felt the reporter was being “rude.”

Data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker this week suggests arrests of reporters this year have already doubled 2023’s total, driven mostly by coverage of protests: 27 as of this week, compared to 14 last year, here in the storied land of the free.

Reporters have faced charges such as criminal trespassing or disorderly conduct, forced to weigh accepting guilt and paying penalties versus mounting legal expenses.

The press tracker put it succinctly in its report: “The criminalization of routine journalism …shows authorities either do not understand newsgathering practices or, more alarmingly, do and use prosecutions as a cudgel to chill future reporting.”

We don’t know which was the case in Albuquerque last week, but either way, UNM police should immediately drop all charges against these two reporters and the university’s regents should declare firmly that the First Amendment is in force and journalism is not a crime.

Opinion, Desert Sage, journalists, First Amendment