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SPJ President Condemns Upstate NY Official’s Move Against Free Press

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A former soccer coach is acquitted in a murder trial. The prosecutor in the case holds a news conference after the verdict. Three journalists covering the trial are excluded.

The dateline for this story isn’t somewhere overseas. It’s unfortunately in our own backyard, in upstate New York.

Last week, St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain barred The Watertown Daily Times reporter William Eckert and photographer Jason Hunter from a news conference after a not guilty verdict in the murder trial of Oral “Nick” Hillary.

Hillary was accused of stalking, strangling and killing 12-year-old Garrett Phillips. The trial has garnered media attention outside of New York, highlighted on national TV programs.

According to The Watertown Daily Times,  Rain excluded Eckert because she said he “‘is a dishonest reporter and I won’t have a dishonest reporter reporting to the community dishonestly.’” (Another journalist, Brit Hanson, was also blocked from the news conference but it has been reported that Rain said that happened in error.)

Click here to read Eckert explain how the events unfolded.

This is unacceptable and threatens the right of a free press. If government officials use their power to decide which journalists are granted access to public information, involving the public, on public property, it threatens our rights and freedom to speak freely, gather information freely and publish freely.

This goes beyond granting someone an exclusive or first interview. This was a news conference where only a few people were excluded and they were excluded because of a government leader’s opinion of them and their work.

The government does not get to decide who reports on and covers them. The public should be outraged that a public official is trying to block their right to public information by blocking access to those that may ask critical questions or hold officials accountable. Excluding certain members of the press from interviews and news conferences interferes with the public’s right to know.

I join and support the New York State Associated Press Association, a group of New York newspaper and broadcast journalists, in condemning Rain’s actions.

“…It is inappropriate for you to attempt to control information by giving personal invitations to only certain reporters based on your preference for favorable coverage, or to bar reporters whose coverage you dislike,” the association president Tracy Ormsbee said in the letter.

Click here to read the full letter.

A response from Rain was not immediately received but will be added if it is.

The Watertown Daily Times is protesting and demanding an apology from Rain.