(CHARLESTON, W.Va.) -- Press freedom advocates have condemned the arrest of a journalist in West Virginia, who was apprehended as he questioned a Trump administration official at the State Capitol in Charleston on Tuesday.
Police arrested veteran broadcast journalist Dan Heyman of Public News Service West Virginia on Tuesday and charged him with “willful disruption of government processes,” a misdemeanor, alleging that Heyman “was aggressively breaching the secret service agents” and “causing a disturbance by yelling questions” about the health care bill at Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a leading press freedom watchdog group, characterized the arrest as “a clear affront to press freedom” and called for the immediate dismissal of the charges.
"The arrest of a journalist trying to ask a question in the public interest is a clear affront to press freedom," said Alexandra Ellerbeck, senior U.S. and Americas researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists. "West Virginia authorities should drop all charges against Dan Heyman immediately and respect journalists' right to question government officials."
After a few hours in custody, Heyman was released on bail, and he held a press conference in which he told reporters that he had only been doing his job.
"At some point they decided I was too persistent in trying to ask this question and do my job, so they arrested me," Heyman said.
According to Peter Sterne, a senior reporter at the Freedom of the Press Foundation who has been collecting data on press freedom incidents in the U.S. in preparation for the foundation’s launch of a “U.S. Press Freedom Tracker” this summer, 15 journalists (including Heyman) have been arrested in the U.S. since the start of the year. Sterne says 14 of them (including Heyman) are currently facing charges as a direct result of their work.
"It's very concerning that Dan was removed from the capitol and arrested, simply for attempting to do his job and ask Secretary Price a question about the controversial health care law,” Sterne told ABC News. “I hope that the authorities in West Virginia will acknowledge their mistake and drop the charges against him."
Heyman’s arrest also caught the attention of the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose legal director, Jamie Lynn Crofts, told ABC News that the organization stands ready to throw the weight of its office behind Heyman because they view his arrest as a troubling sign of a trickle-down effect.
“We’re absolutely concerned that this is something that’s trickling down from the highest levels of the administration,” Crofts said. “We have a president who every day is saying the media is “fake news” and is refusing to call on reporters he doesn’t like. Eventually that's going to seep down to other areas, including law enforcement.”
For Crofts, Heyman’s arrest raised concerns that such incidents, if left unaddressed, could put a chill on critical reporting designed to hold our elected officials to account.
“If this kind of behavior continues, it’s just going to result in reporters being afraid to ask questions and people being afraid to stand up to their representatives,” Crofts continued. “A free press is one of the building blocks of our democracy. Without it, we’re not the same country. Americans, regardless of their political beliefs, have the right to stand up and ask tough questions.”
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