A prominent DC journalist was allegedly roughed up by security guards after he tried to ask a question at the Federal Communications Commission's open meeting on Thursday, prompting anger from press freedom advocates and multiple apologies from agency officials.
John M. Donnelly, an award-winning journalist at CQ Roll Call, had just approached Republican FCC commissioner Mike O'Rielly on the sidelines of the agency's press conference when two plainclothes security guards pinned the reporter against a wall and then ejected him from the building into the street, Donnelly told the National Press Club.
The incident happened at the FCC's DC headquarters—a public building—in full view of O'Rielly, who apparently walked past as the incident was unfolding. Earlier, security guards had been shadowing Donnelly, who was "continuously" displaying his congressional press pass, and even waited for him outside the men's room, according to the Press Club's account.
"I felt astounded that they were actually treating me like a criminal," Donnelly told Motherboard late Thursday. "Using limited force and threatening more, and forcing me completely out of the building and onto the street—all for attempting to ask a public official a question in a public building in the United States of America."
In an ironic twist, Donnelly, who is a well-known and respected DC journalist, happens to be the Chairman of the National Press Club's Press Freedom Team.
"It is completely unacceptable to physically restrain a reporter who has done nothing wrong."
The incident occurred at a time of heightened tension between the Trump administration and the press. Trump has repeatedly criticized journalists and even called news organizations "the enemy of the American people." Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was chosen by Trump to lead the agency, drew criticism earlier this year for refusing to say if he agreed with the president's incendiary assertion.
(In another recent example of the Trump administration's hostility to the press, a State Department official on Monday verbally attacked veteran CNN White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski and repeatedly demanded that she reveal her sources, before declaring that she was "not smart enough to handle our information.")
Press freedom advocates were not amused by Donnelly's treatment at the FCC.
"Donnelly was doing his job and doing it with his characteristic civility," National Press Club President Jeff Ballou said in a statement. "Reporters can ask questions in any area of a public building that is not marked off as restricted to them. Officials who are fielding the questions don't have to answer. But it is completely unacceptable to physically restrain a reporter who has done nothing wrong or force him or her to leave a public building as if a crime had been committed."
Barbara Cochran, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, pointed out that "the FCC and other government buildings are paid for by US tax dollars, and officials who work there are accountable to the public through its representatives in the media. The FCC should apologize for this incident and ensure that their guards are trained to respect the right of journalists to cover FCC public events. In other words: hands off reporters!"
At the meeting on Thursday, FCC officials voted to advance a controversial proposal aimed at dismantling Obama-era rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be treated equally. Open internet advocates say the rules are essential to ensure free speech online.
In a statement emailed to Motherboard, a FCC spokesperson said: "We apologized to Mr. Donnelly more than once and let him know that the FCC was on heightened alert today based on several threats." The spokesperson declined to elaborate on the nature of those threats.
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