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Editorial: Elected policing officials must respect freedom of the press

By Editorial Board

May 18, 2022 9:35 p.m.

Editor’s note: Editorials are intended to serve as the jumping-off point, not the conclusion, to discussion. As part of the Daily Bruin’s commitment to its readers, the board hopes to present a responsible and clear analysis of relevant events and news items affecting the lives of those we serve, but our editorials are not representative of the Daily Bruin’s views on issues as a whole. We encourage all readers to reach out to our board members and to respond to our editorials.

The Los Angeles County sheriff made a baldfaced attempt to undermine the freedom of the press.

In March, the Los Angeles Times broke the news that the sheriff’s department – the largest in the world – tried to cover up a leaked video, which showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head for three minutes. Alene Tchekmedyian, the LA Times reporter behind the story and the 2009-10 editor in chief of the Daily Bruin, had been continuously reporting on the 2021 incident – including Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s potential role in directing the cover-up.

Villanueva initially claimed that he did not know of the incident until several months after. But according to a legal claim filed against the county that Tchekmedyian reported on in late April, he had seen the video just days after it happened, allegedly stating that he would “handle the matter.”

The morning after Tchekmedyian’s April article was published, Villanueva pointed to her headshot with a wooden stick at a news conference, suggesting the department would open a criminal investigation into her and two others for illegally obtaining and leaking the video of the incident.

Make no mistake: This was a direct attack on the freedom of the press.

The editorial board condemns any and all efforts to restrict the rights of journalists. As members of the fourth estate, journalists have an important responsibility to hold institutions accountable and keep our communities informed. Intimidation from politicians hinders reporters’ abilities to carry out those duties.

Not to mention, it is antithetical to everything a supposedly democratic state stands for.

Members of the press generally adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, which sets forth ethical reporting practices. The code calls for journalists to “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm,” “act independently,” and “be accountable and transparent” in all circumstances. Above all, the code states “the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.”

Tchekmedyian was doing exactly that when she reported on the sheriff’s department’s cover-up. We live in a time when policing is increasingly under public scrutiny – and for good reason. A former deputy from the LASD was recently charged with manslaughter after shooting and killing an unarmed man in 2019, and the department has been the subject of allegations of gang-like behavior among deputies, all of which Tchekmedyian reported on as well. The March 2021 incident in the leaked video happened in the weeks leading up to the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who would later be convicted for the murder of George Floyd after he was videotaped kneeling on Floyd’s neck.

The public deserves to know what goes on behind closed doors in their local policing agencies, especially one that claims to be committed “to the humane treatment of those under (their) authority and care.”

For an elected official to target Tchekmedyian for informing the community of their department’s unethical behavior is inexcusable. It flies in the face of journalists’ constitutional right to report freely and without fear.

It also compromises the right of the community to receive information about people in power and use that information to hold those people accountable.

Following backlash, Villanueva walked back his pledge to investigate Tchekmedyian, claiming he never said Tchekmedyian would be “a suspect in a criminal investigation.”

In a scorching editorial, the LA Times’ editorial board described this reversal as “the act of a coward who seeks to intimidate his critics without having to stand behind his words.” The board also said Villanueva was similar to “tin-pot dictators and power-hungry functionaries who abuse their power to retaliate against reporters for critical coverage.”

This board agrees with these characterizations of Villanueva’s actions. It is disgusting that in this day and age, an elected official felt comfortable threatening a journalist because her reporting sullied his public image. And given Villanueva’s current bid to serve as sheriff for a second term, we cannot help but suspect his actions were motivated in part by a shameless desire to get reelected.

Voters should remember Villanueva’s behavior when they head to the polls June 7 for the primaries. Anyone who believes they can get away with intimidating journalists is not fit to serve in public office.

Freedom of the press is a non-negotiable right.

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