|My mugshot from the Shelby County Jail in Alabama.|
The decade of the 2010s is coming to a close, and in that time frame, only one U.S. journalist has been incarcerated. Who is it? You are reading him right now. In roughly the past 14 years, only one U.S. journalist has been arrested for what a journalism Web site calls a "censorship violation" (by a court). Again, you are reading him.
I've tended to describe my five-month incarceration in Shelby County, AL, beginning on Oct. 23, 2013, as an "arrest for blogging." But I like the term "censorship violation" better because it plainly states that specially assigned Circuit Judge Claud Neilson acted outside the law in ordering my arrest, and Homewood lawyer Rob Riley and his "colleague" (lobbyist Liberty Duke) acted outside the law in seeking my arrest -- based on a preliminary injunction that even a creepy, vexatious fruit loop like Ken "Popehat" White recognized as wildly unconstitutional.
In December 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a list of imprisoned reporters around the globe and gave me the distinction of being the only journalist in the Western Hemisphere to be jailed. CPJ recently released its 2019 survey, and it confirms one point about my arrest of which I've been uncertain: I am, in fact, the last U.S. journalist to be incarcerated. Since my release in March 2014, no other American reporter has been arrested on our shores.
How do I know that? For the first time, the 2019 CPJ survey includes a database of all journalists who have been arrested from 1992 through 2018. It shows that no American journalist has been arrested since that calm fall evening in 2013 when Shelby County deputy Chris Blevins broke into the basement/garage portion of our home -- without showing a warrant, stating he had a warrant, or even stating that a warrant existed -- shoved me to a concrete floor three times, doused me with pepper spray, and dragged me out of my home, where his partner, Jason Valenti, threatened to break my arms as I lay on my own driveway, numb and disoriented from the pepper spray.
From CPJ's 2019 survey, by Elana Beiser and titled "China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt are world's worst jailers of journalists":
The number of journalists imprisoned globally for their work in 2019 remained near record highs, as China tightened its iron grip on the press and Turkey, having stamped out virtually all independent reporting, released journalists awaiting trial or appeal. Authoritarianism, instability, and protests in the Middle East led to a rise in the number of journalists locked up in the region -- particularly in Saudi Arabia, which is now on par with Egypt as the third worst jailer worldwide.
In its annual global survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists found at least 250 journalists in jail in relation to their work, compared with an adjusted 255 a year earlier. The highest number of journalists imprisoned in any year since CPJ began keeping track is 273 in 2016. After China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the worst jailers are Eritrea, Vietnam, and Iran.
While the majority of journalists imprisoned worldwide face anti-state charges, in line with recent years, the number charged with “false news” rose to 30 compared with 28 last year. Use of the charge, which the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi applies most prolifically, has climbed steeply since 2012, when CPJ found only one journalist worldwide facing the allegation. In the past year, repressive countries including Russia and Singapore have enacted laws criminalizing the publication of “fake news.”
This year’s census marks the first time in four years that Turkey has not been the world’s worst jailer, but the reduced number of prisoners does not signal an improved situation for the Turkish media. Rather, the fall to 47 journalists in jail from 68 last year reflects the successful efforts by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stamp out independent reporting and criticism by closing down more than 100 news outlets and lodging terror-related charges against many of their staff. With the industry gutted by government shutdowns and takeovers, and scores of journalists in exile, jobless, or cowed into self-censorship, authorities on October 24 enacted a legislative package that granted new appeals on convictions for certain offenses -- including “propaganda for a terrorist organization,” a favorite charge of prosecutors -- and shortened some pretrial detention periods.
Want to see my place on the list? Here's how I did it:
* Click on the database link;
* Go to the drop-down box under "Show" and click "Imprisoned";
* Use the drop-down box under "Years" to select "2006 to 2019." (Note: I started with 2006 because that's the year San Franciso-based videographer Joshua Wolf was arrested after taking video of a protest, where a court later determined a crime might have taken place and ordered Wolf to turn over his video as possible evidence. Wolf refused and was arrested. Such judicial orders related to possible crimes are lawful in the United States.)
* That search turns up 1,176 journalists. The list is alphabetized by first name, and Wolf appears on page 26, and the charge against him is listed as "retaliatory."
* I turn up on page 46, with a charge of "censorship violation." You can click on my name and find this summary of case:
Shuler, whose blog Legal Schnauzer specializes in allegations of corruption and scandal in Republican circles in Alabama, was arrested on contempt of court charges for failure to comply with an October 1, 2013, preliminary injunction prohibiting him from publishing certain stories on his blog.
The charges stem from a defamation suit brought by prominent local attorney Robert Riley, Jr., son of a two-term former Alabama governor and a rumored future political candidate himself. The suit is related to Shuler's blog posts in July 2013 that claimed Riley had an extramarital affair and offered details.
Riley vehemently denies the allegations. In an interview with CPJ, Riley said he has a right to seek injunctive relief in a defamation case and there is legal precedent for doing so. He said someone who decides "to make up a lie, destroy someone's reputation, that's not journalism."
As the case was pending, the Circuit Court of Shelby County issued a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction prohibiting Shuler from publishing more about the alleged affair. When Shuler continued to publish stories about Riley on his blog, the lawyer filed a petition asking that the blogger be held in contempt. He was arrested weeks later.
Leading press freedom and civil rights groups said the injunction contradicted decades of First Amendment jurisprudence and did so in complete secrecy, as all records in the case were initially sealed by the court. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press wrote: "Neither a default judgment nor a full adjudication on the merits of the defamation claims appears to have occurred. ... Courts have determined that bans on speech prior to such determinations are prior restraints. The Supreme Court has found prior restraints to be presumptively unconstitutional and has never upheld one."
On November 12, 2013, the judge in the case filed a permanent injunction against Shuler and said he would unseal the court documents. It was not clear whether the permanent injunction pertained only to past defamatory content, such as a takedown order, or applied to future speech. In a footnote in the ruling, the judge said Shuler would remain imprisoned until he complied with the order to remove the statements. Carol Shuler wrote on Legal Schnauzer that her husband said in court that he could not remove the content from a jail cell.
Here is a little exercise I would encourage readers to try. Once you get to page 46 of the CPJ database, where my name appears, check out the origins of other journalists who appear on that page. They come from places such as Iran, Cuba, Uganda, Bangladesh, Congo, Iraq, Russia, Egypt, and Turkey. Shelby County, Alabama -- in terms of constitutional freedoms -- keeps some pretty disreputable company, and it suggests "The Heart of Dixie" has become a backwater and a police state, probably driven largely by former U.S. Senator and ex-Trump attorney general Jeff Sessions and his associates, who include racist Trump adviser Stephen Miller.
How will this situation change if Trump is "re-elected" in 2020? It almost certainly will not get better.
Below is a video about the CPJ's 2019 report: