After the Los Angeles Times published an article about a cover up of violence by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva insinuated that the author of the article should be subject to an investigation into the leaked footage.
Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian reported on an attempted cover up of an incident that occurred in March 2021 in which a Los Angeles County deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes. The cover up was done to avoid backlash similar to backlash of the excessive use of force by police officers that led to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, according to the article.
In response to this, Villanueva held a press conference on April 26 to dispute the allegations and to announce a criminal investigation into how the footage that was leaked and appeared in the L.A. Times article. While announcing the criminal investigation, Villanueva had a board reading “What did they know and when did they know it?” and pointed to photos of Eliezer Vera, who is running against Villanueva for sheriff; Max Huntsman, Los Angeles County inspector general; and Tchekmedyian. Villanueva said that the footage was stolen property and that all parties are subject to criminal investigation, according to the Associated Press.
This is a clear attack on his opponents and especially on Tchekmedyian, who only did her job as a reporter. Launching a criminal investigation involving the reporter is a clear attack on the First Amendment freedom of the press and an attempt to criminalize and silence news reporting.
Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy and any attempt to limit, suppress or threaten this freedom is an infringement on the rights set forth in the Constitution. The purpose of the press is to hold the government and those in power accountable, and that especially includes Villanueva.
Not only is this a clear attack on Tchekmedyian’s rights as a reporter, but her using the footage she obtained is far from illegal.
A journalist cannot be punished for publishing illegally obtained information or documents if the journalist themself did not commit anything illegal, according to the Freedom Forum Institute.
This also would not be the first attack on journalists from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
During the protests in 2020, Josie Huang, a reporter for KPCC radio, was arrested while filming an arrest. Despite Villanueva saying she was not identified as a journalist, her footage shows her yelling to the officers that she is part of the press, according to the Associated Press.
That same night, photojournalist Nash Baker was threatened by sheriff’s deputies covering the same protest as Huang, according to CBS.
Villanueva and the rest of his department need to be held accountable for their repeated and clear attacks on journalists simply doing their job in an attempt to inform the public. Villanueva insinuating that Tchekmedyian should be investigated for doing her job has no business in a democracy that prides itself on the freedom of the press.