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Washington Post reporter who tweeted about Kobe Bryant rape allegations placed on administrative leave

The Washington Post suspended a reporter who tweeted a link to a story about rape allegations against Kobe Bryant. (John McDonnell/Washington D.C.)

The Washington Post has placed on administrative leave a reporter who tweeted a link to a news story about rape allegations against the late basketball star Kobe Bryant after his death on Sunday, saying “her tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”

The tweet by political reporter Felicia Sonmez sparked a furious backlash on social media, with many deeming it inappropriate just hours after Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were killed in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles. In the wake of her posting, Sonmez said she received death and rape threats and her home address was posted online, compelling her to stay at a hotel overnight.

The Post placed Sonmez on paid leave while newsroom managers look into the episode.

Sonmez sparked the uproar by linking to a 2016 Daily Beast article headlined “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.”

The story recounted details of an accusation of sexual assault against Bryant by a 19-year-old woman employed by a Colorado hotel that Bryant visited in 2003. Bryant was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment, but the charges were dropped after the woman declined to testify. The Los Angeles Lakers star acknowledged having sexual relations with the woman but said the relationship was consensual. He later apologized to the woman, acknowledging that she hadn’t given her consent.

In an interview, Sonmez said her intent was to fill in an important piece of information in the early accounts of Bryant’s life and career and to counter tweets that had popped up dismissing the allegations against Bryant as insignificant.

“It was jarring to me to see the initial coverage [of Bryant’s death] omitting any mention” of the 2003 case, she said. “The early obits and news stories made only passing mention” to it. “The seriousness of those allegations is a valid part of his legacy and his life. Those allegations should not be minimized in any way.”

Sonmez, who has been open about her own experience with sexual assault, said survivors of assault and their family members praised her for highlighting the Bryant allegations. Rather than undermining her colleagues, she said, her tweets did the opposite. “It demonstrates to survivors that we see them and hear them, and they are not ignored,” she said. “No matter how rich and powerful and beloved [an alleged perpetrator is], we will treat them with the seriousness they deserve.”

As the criticism of Sonmez mounted Sunday night, a Post managing editor, Tracy Grant, instructed Sonmez to delete any tweets referring to her original posting. Sonmez complied.

News organizations have repeatedly disciplined employees for social-media postings that run afoul of general newsroom guidelines and violate journalists’ obligation of neutrality. But the rules don’t cover every circumstance and are sometimes irregularly enforced.

In a letter to Grant and Post Executive Editor Martin Baron, The Post’s newsroom union, the Newspaper Guild, protested Sonmez’s suspension.

“We write to share our alarm and dismay that our newsroom leaders have chosen to place Felicia Sonmez on leave over a social media post,” the letter said.

It added: “We understand . . . the hours after Bryant’s death were a fraught time to share reporting about past accusations of sexual assault. The loss of such a beloved figure, and of so many other lives, is a tragedy. But we believe it is our responsibility as a news organization to tell the public the whole truth as we know it — about figures and institutions both popular and unpopular, at moments timely and untimely.”

The letter urged The Post to ensure Sonmez’s safety in the face of threats, to make a statement condemning abuse of its reporters and to rescind any disciplinary action against her.

Sonmez said that she had been warned previously by Post management about statements on social media regarding her own sexual assault allegations and that this has left her “deeply frustrated.”

Grant on Monday referred to her statement that Sonmez’s conduct had “undermined” her colleagues. She declined further comment.