The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Journalists in Uvalde are stonewalled, hassled, threatened with arrest

Reporters came to Texas to tell the story of the Robb Elementary School massacre. But ‘we were seen as enemies’ by police, they say.

In Uvalde, Tex., two police squad cars approach San Antonio Express-News photographer William Luther while he was trying to take photographs outside a funeral from a public sidewalk on June 5. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle)
Placeholder while article actions load

UVALDE, Tex. — Journalists had been threatened with arrest for getting too close to the mourners, so Houston Chronicle reporter Julian Gill stayed in the designated media area when he reported on funerals the week after the massacre at Robb Elementary School.

Nevertheless, a phalanx of uniformed bikers confronted Gill outside the cemetery gates. They called themselves “Guardians of the Children” and claimed to be working with police officers who stood watch.

“I’m not trying to disturb anyone, guys,” Gill told the bikers, in a video he posted online. “I’m not trying to ask anybody any questions. I just wanted to watch. That’s all we can do, right?”

But the bikers followed and harassed journalists anyway, Gill wrote in the Chronicle. When he accidentally bumped into a Guardian who claimed to be a paramedic, the bikers accused him of assault and battery. “As a public servant, that’s kind of a felony,” the biker-paramedic said in the video.

A month after 19 children and two educators were killed at Robb Elementary School, a picture is emerging of a disastrous police response, in which officers from several law enforcement agencies waited for an hour outside an unlocked classroom where children were trapped with the attacker. But journalists who have flocked to Uvalde, Tex., from across the country to tell that story have faced near-constant interference, intimidation and stonewalling from some of the same authorities — and not only bikers claiming to have police sanction.

Journalists have been threatened with arrest for “trespassing” outside public buildings. They have been barred from public meetings and refused basic information about what police did during the May 24 attack. After several early, error-filled news conferences, officials have routinely turned down interview requests and refused to hold news briefings. The situation has been made even more fraught by the spider’s web of local and state agencies involved in responding to and investigating the shooting, some of which now blame each other for the chaos.

“Our reporters have covered [the 2017 massacre in] Sutherland Springs, the Fort Hood shooting, and some are very experienced, having been embedded with military in Afghanistan, covered revolutions in Latin American, and none of them could remember an experience like this,” said Marc Duvoisin, editor in chief of the San Antonio Express-News. “The interference was so intense and without an identifiable public safety purpose.”

Duvoisin has complained to Uvalde city leaders and some police chiefs — one of whom apologized, he said. Some of his journalists nevertheless asked not to be sent back to Uvalde, or confessed to feeling guilty for their work there. Harassment became so bad that the newspaper’s photo director told photographers to document their treatment by police.

One photographer, William Luther, reported that police repeatedly pushed journalists back from a cemetery procession on May 31: first into the street, then onto a sidewalk where a taqueria owner had previously given them permission to stand. He said an officer falsely told him that the owner had demanded he leave, and threatened him when he offered to apologize: “If you go into that taqueria, I’m going to arrest you.”

Police were documented repeatedly obstructing photographers in public areas over the following days, sometimes standing or parking vehicles directly in front of their cameras. Both Texas Department of Public Safety officials and Uvalde police did not respond to requests for comment.

“The police were not letting us work,” said Antonio Guillen, a photographer for the Univision station in San Antonio. “We were seen as enemies.”

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have resisted releasing information that could shed light on how police responded to the attack. Duvoisin said the “information crisis” in Uvalde began the moment school officials posted a notice on Facebook that Robb Elementary school had been locked down.

Reporters and editors could not reach any authorities in Uvalde able to give basic information over the next several hours, he said. There were no briefings by local police, no statements of facts about the events, and few, if any, returned calls. The first public address came not from local authorities, as is common after mass shootings, but from the Texas governor, several hours after the carnage ended.

It is not unusual for public information to be lacking in the aftermath of a catastrophe, or for locals to be rankled when hordes of reporters converge on a small town. But the pattern of miscommunication, stonewalling and intimidation in Uvalde has surprised even journalists with decades of experience, and led some to suspect it is intentional.

State officials held a disastrous news conference two days after the attack, in which Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Victor Escalon ignored pleas to provide information in Spanish (Uvalde County’s population is mostly Hispanic), and lacked basic information such as how long it took police to arrive after the first 911 call. “Could anybody have got there sooner?” he said told reporters. “You gotta understand, small town.”

In the weeks since, officials have refused to release information that might explain why officers missed opportunity after opportunity to confront the attacker earlier and potentially save lives.

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica have jointly submitted 70 requests for public information to state, local and federal agencies, seeking records such as ballistic reports and death certificates. They have received two “partial” releases, according to Sewell Chan, the editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, which has done some of the most extensive reporting on the Uvalde tragedy. He said several agencies have not responded or have asked the state attorney general to review the request — a process that typically takes months.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin last week accused state authorities of selectively releasing information to scapegoat local law enforcement officials, rather than DPS officers who also responded to the shooting. “I actually wonder who the hell’s in charge of this investigation, because you can’t get a straight answer,” McLaughlin said.

But transparency watchdogs suspect the bureaucratic confusion is an excuse for delay. “It’s a convenient prop,” said Kelley Shannon, the executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “It’s an excuse. They can release any information they want.”

Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat representing Uvalde, filed a lawsuit last week against DPS to compel it to disclose its records. A coalition of news organizations that includes the parent companies of CNN, CBS News, ABC News and TelevisaUnivision is discussing similar legal action.

Meanwhile, journalists keep running into obstacles as they try to gather information on the ground.

At a committee hearing in Uvalde last week of Texas House legislators investigating law enforcement officials’ response to the massacre, a fire marshal announced that all reporters would have to leave the building and wait outside in triple-digit heat.

The journalists were “intimidating” people, the marshal explained, as a CNN correspondent kept recording video of the eviction.

More than headlines or public fascination is at stake. Definitive answers about the shooting could lead to criminal charges, guide future law enforcement responses during mass shootings and may provide some comfort to the victims’ families.

But for the time being, it’s often a struggle just to snap a photo.

“In no way would I compare this to reporting under an authoritarian regime,” said Chan, the Texas Tribune editor. But the roadblocks to information erected by city and state officials, he said, “should trouble anyone who cares about the free press’s role in our democracy.”

Silvia Foster-Frau contributed to this report.

Loading...