The arrests come at a contentious moment for the Justice Department and First Amendment advocates, who have sharply criticized federal law enforcement for secretly issuing subpoenas of reporters’ phone records during the Trump administration.
The new attorney general, Merrick Garland, has ordered the drafting of new rules for prosecutors when trying to identify who may have leaked classified information, but critics of the long-standing Justice Department policy say it should not have taken another set of controversial subpoenas for law enforcement officials to stop using such secretive measures to hunt for reporters’ sources.
Amid that ongoing tension, the Justice Department has begun arresting some of those who allegedly surrounded a group of reporters outside the Capitol, ran them off and then set out to destroy tens of thousands of dollars worth of their gear.
On Thursday, FBI agents arrested a Covington, Va., man for allegedly destroying journalists’ equipment. Joshua Dillon Haynes was charged with smashing their gear outside the Capitol and bragging about it in a text to a friend. Haynes was the fifth person arrested in connection with attacks on the media in a little more than a week.
“We attacked the CNN reporters and the fake news and destroyed tens of thousands of dollars of their video and television equipment here’s a picture behind me of the pile we made out of it,” he allegedly messaged the person, according to court papers.
Court papers filed in the “attacks on media” cases suggest that charging someone with assaulting a journalist or vandalizing their equipment is a bit more complex than other rioting charges.
There is no federal law specifically against attacking a journalist, so the Justice Department has charged those who went after reporters or their gear on Jan. 6 with committing violence in the restricted grounds of the Capitol, or destroying property on the Capitol grounds. More such arrests are expected, according to officials.
“We welcome the Justice Department’s steps to hold people accountable for assaulting journalists and damaging their equipment as they documented one of the worst attacks on our democracy in recent times. These charges send a very clear message that the Justice Department will protect journalists who are doing their jobs to keep us informed,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Other advocates said the issue of journalist safety is bigger than Trump, the 2020 election and American politics. “It’s heartening that the Justice Department is taking attacks against reporters seriously,” said Katherine Jacobsen, a researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, which had called for investigations of Jan. 6 attacks on the press. Bringing such cases, she said, “sends a signal that journalists do play an essential role in our democracy.”
While Congress was the central focus of the rioters’ anger that day, many in the mob expressed disgust for journalists, with one person scrawling “murder the media” on a congressional door.
“The vilification of the media that we saw from the previous administration was incredibly concerning, and that played into a longer arc of rising anti-press sentiment across the country,” she said. “Jan. 6 showed that what the administration says about the media does matter, words do matter, and can have very negative, very real impact on reporters and their ability to do their jobs safely.”
Chase Kevin Allen, a 25-year-old man from Seekonk, Mass., was arrested this week on charges of engaging in violence and destroying property on the grounds of the Capitol. According to FBI papers filed in court against Allen, he was seen on video stomping on reporting equipment as a large group of individuals swarmed several reporters and drove them away. In one video, a person who appears to be Allen is seen cursing and yelling for the journalists to leave the area.
After his arrest, Allen spoke to reporters outside his home, saying he was a documentarian who went to the Capitol on Jan. 6 to observe and record what happened, and compared himself to a reporter. Speaking without a shirt, revealing a chest tattoo that said, “Vanilla,” Allen declined to comment about the specific allegations against him. “I’m working everything out with the courts and whatnot,” he said.
Earlier in the week, the Justice Department charged a woman with disorderly conduct and trespassing after videos showed her egging on an attack on a New York Times photographer inside the Capitol during the rioting. Investigators say that in one of the videos, Sandra Pomeroy Weyer of Mechanicsburg, Pa., can be heard calling the photographer a traitor and urging others to “get her out” and “mace her.”
Separately, two men from Long Island were charged with destroying media equipment. According to court papers, much of the key evidence against Gabriel Brown and Zvonimir Jurlina was contained in videos they took of themselves that day.
The FBI affidavit filed against Brown describes video of him denouncing the media as he and a group of others surround journalists’ television equipment and try to damage it.
“Smash that [expletive],” Brown said in one video, according to the court papers. “You know what, the media did not want to do its job so now they [expletive] can’t.”
After he was taken into custody Monday in Texas, Jurlina posted a video online in which he called himself a “political prisoner.” On the video, which has since been taken down, Jurlina said: “Donald Trump, please pay for my legal fees because this all happened because of you . . . and I did nothing wrong.”