Los Angeles sheriff appears to back down after reporting he was investigating reporter

On Tuesday, he alarmed press freedom advocates by lashing out at a press conference and saying a Los Angeles Times reporter was under criminal investigation. Later in the day he attempted to walk back his alarming comments, but it’s important to understand the context, including Villanueva’s highly controversial behavior and attacks on the media.

Villanueva has repeatedly pointed the finger at LA Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian who is just doing her job covering her department. Chekmedyian has published a series of stories about an incident in which an MP knelt on a detainee – including a post Monday about an allegation that Villanueva was involved in a cover-up.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Villanueva displayed and pointed to a photo of Chekmedyian, plus one of his political rivals and the sheriff’s inspector general. The arrows implied a connection between the three. Villanueva called the video of the incident that Chekmedyian had obtained “well stolen”. And he said he was investigating “all parties” involved in the case. When repeatedly asked if Chekmedyian was specifically under investigation, Villanueva replied that “all parties to the act” were being probed.

But after widespread condemnation and a warning from the newspaper’s general counsel, Villanueva somehow backtracked. “As a result of the incredible frenzy of misinformation circulating, I must clarify that at no time today did I say that an LA Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation,” the county sheriff’s department said. of the. tweeted Tuesday evening. “We have no interest in pursuing, and we do not pursue, criminal charges against journalists.”

Notably, Villanueva seems to have set up a straw man here. There is a difference between being under investigation and being a suspect in an investigation where criminal charges may be laid against the person. The first was reported by news agencies, the second was not…

“An abuse of your official position”

Hours before the department’s tweet, LA Times General Counsel Jeff Glasser wrote the sheriff a scathing memo. Glasser described Villanueva’s remarks as a “thinly veiled attempt to intimidate ‘to intimidate Chekmedyian’ for reporting unflattering (but entirely accurate) information about the conduct of individuals in your department and allegations of a cover-up by you and other officials”.

Glasser said it was “an abuse of your official position which risks exposing you and the county to legal liability.” He demanded that the department “keep all records related to any ‘investigation’ of Ms. Chekmedyian or any other LA Times employee in this case.” You can read the full letter here…

A story of going after the press

This is far from the first time Villanueva has made the press a target, as LA Mag’s Ian Spiegelman wrote earlier this month. He has already opposed Chekmedyian. The LA Times recalled an incident last year in which the sheriff’s department refused to speak to him. “The department suggested it would take questions from ‘any other’ Times reporters,” the article said. “The Times declined to assign a new reporter to the story.”

Widespread denunciation

>> Kevin Merida, editor of the LA Times, said “Villanueva’s attempt to criminalize reporting goes against well-established constitutional law…”

>> Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach City, which is in LA County, said it was “a clear attack on the incredibly dangerous and free press” and called on other elected officials to “speak out against this behavior and oppose these actions of the Sheriff…”

>> The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press called Villanueva’s decision “out of reach” and a violation of the First Amendment, condemning it in the “strongest terms…”

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