Intimidating the press

Officials in Malheur County in eastern Oregon had asked Sheriff Brian Wolfe to assess whether the Malheur Enterprise weekly newspaper had engaged in criminal conduct in its reporting involving the director of the county’s economic development department.

County Counsel Stephanie Williams confirmed that she contacted Wolfe with allegations about emails and phone calls to the county’s economic development officials.

At issue was the state crime of telephonic harassment. That law states that “a telephone caller commits the crime of telephonic harassment if the caller intentionally harasses or annoys another person” by calling a number they have been forbidden to use.

This week Sheriff Brian Wolfe announced that his office would not investigate. He said there was no evidence to support the allegations. 

That decision was made after the story was reported in news outlets across the country. It also raised the hackles of many Malheur County residents. If the local newspaper can be under threat of criminal prosecution for doing its Constitutionally-protected duty, is anyone safe from the wrath of public officals who don’t like to be questioned about their actions?

Public officials are just that: public. They work for the citizens. The operations of every public office needs to be transparent, it should not be a burden for officials to answer questions from the press or the people. 

The allegation of harassment from reporters from the Malheur Enterprise was a weapon offcials hoped would put a stop to journalistic investigations into the dealings of county officials. We can hope this puts an end to the intimidation of that newspaper and any media outlet doing their job.

In a climate where leaders decry the media as an enemy of the people we all must be vigilante for attempts to bind the hands of organizations that are the watchdog on government.  —LAZ