Over the course of Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, six media workers were arrested and now face the potential of up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted.

A documentary producer, a photojournalist, a live-streamer and a freelance reporter were each charged with the most serious level of offense under Washington D.C.’s laws against rioting, after being caught up in the police action against Inauguration Day protests at 12th and L streets in downtown D.C.

Jack Keller, a producer for the web documentary series “Story of America,” said he was detained for about 36 hours despite telling officers that he was covering the demonstrations as a journalist. Keller, whose cellphone has been taken by the authorities, told The Guardian: “The way we were treated was an absolute travesty.”

Photojournalist Matt Hopard, who was filming the protests, was arrested along with Keller. Arrested at the same downtown location were Shay Horse, an independent photojournalist and activist, and Aaron Cantú, a freelance journalist.

According to The Guardian, these arrests followed the arresting and charging of journalists Evan Engel of Vocativ and Alex Rubinstein of RT America, who were covering the same protests.

All six were arraigned in superior court on January 21 and released until further hearings in February and March.

Although charged with felonies, none of the arrest reports for these journalists makes a single allegation as to what they are supposed to have done wrong. Apparently just documenting the protests in Washington D.C. was enough to charge them. 

Reporters and representatives were also detained, but they were not charged. We’ve seen journalists being charged in earlier protests, such as the Ferguson riot of August 2014. Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post were arrested but released; They were charged a year later, but those charges were eventually dropped.

A Chilling Message

The arrests of these six journalists has alarmed all reporters covering protests in the future.

“These charges are clearly inappropriate, and we are concerned that they could send a chilling message to journalists covering future protests,” said Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We call on authorities in Washington to drop these charges immediately.”

“By slapping these journalists with felony charges, the U.S. Attorney’s office is intimidating the press at a time when mass protests are expanding and there is a pressing need for accurate reporting in the public interest,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, an organization dedicated to free expression for all writers.

Journalism’s Purpose: Provide Citizens With the Truth

In the United States, the media is often called the fourth branch of government, or sometimes “The Fourth Estate.” The task of journalists is to monitor the political process to make sure that political players aren’t abusing the democratic process.

“The purpose of journalism,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism, “is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ.” Rather, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”

“The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

The Media Should “Keep Its Mouth Shut”

Far from keeping citizens informed about what’s going on in their government, Steve Bannon, the chief White House strategist, declared on January 26 that, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”

That sounds like a threat to me, and it bodes badly for the future. Bannon is not just telling us writers to check the facts, he’s threatening us that if we keep reporting the facts, we will have to face the consequences.

A Totalitarian Government?

Francine Prose, writing in The Guardian, explains why this is dangerous.

“History has shown us why totalitarian governments are such implacable enemies of the press, and why, on coming to power, their leaders have been so quick to impose strict censorship and criminalize dissent.

It’s easier to dominate and oppress a terrified population forbidden to read (or write or speak) the truth, people who have resigned themselves to being lied to, and who are further isolated by a lack of information.”

Impartial and honest journalism is crucial to a democracy. So the more men like Stephen Bannon tell us to keep our mouths shut, the more essential it is that we keep insisting on our constitutional right to read and to write the truth.

And the truth is that those six journalists were arrested for no reason at all.