The publisher of a small, weekly newspaper in Georgia has been indicted after he requested public records, prompting outrage from journalists' rights groups.
Mark Thomason, the publisher of the Fannin Focus, and the paper's attorney, Russell Stookey, were both arrested last week, and charged with identity fraud and making false statements, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).
Thomason tirelessly pursued public records related to the Pickens County Superior Court, and in doing so, got under the skin of the court's chief judge, Brenda Weaver.
Weaver alleged that Thomason made a false statement in the open-records request by asking for copies of "illegally cashed" checks. She also contends that Thomason failed to get Weaver's approval before submitting subpoenas to the banks where the local Superior Court held official accounts.
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Because of this, Weaver is arguing that Thomason was trying to steal the court's banking information.
Thomason, meanwhile, said he was just "doing his job" as a journalist. "I was astounded, in disbelief that there were any charges to be had," Thomason told AJC. "I take this as a punch at journalist across the nation that if we continue to do our jobs correctly, then we have to leave in fear of being imprisoned."
The Freedom of Information Act allows the partial or full disclosure of documents controlled by the US government. Public records requests, or FOIA requests, are fundamental to an investigative journalist's toolkit.
Weaver told AJC that she "resented" Thomason's "attacks on her character in his weekly newspaper." "I don't react well when my honesty is questioned," Weaver said.
The whole story began with Thomason working on a different story about a local judge who used a racial slur when he referred to a defendant in a criminal case by his nickname.
Paul Fletcher, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) described the saga "truly outrageous."
"We are shocked that any journalist would be jailed for simply asking a question," SPJ told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
Thomason and Stookey are out on $10,000 bond until their trial.
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