WASHINGTON – The decision last month by the U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia to pursue felony charges against Aaron Cantú, an independent journalist and staff writer at the Santa Fe Reporter, for allegedly participating in protests in the District on Inauguration Day are either completely disproportionate to any crime he may have committed, or are entirely unwarranted if Cantú was not actively engaged in rioting, PEN America said today.

Cantú was arrested along with more than 200 protesters, including seven journalists, during a brief altercation between protesters and police on Inauguration Day 2017.  In response, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department “kettled” hundreds of protesters, meaning they indiscriminately herded protesters into a confined area, refused to let them leave, and arrested them en masse.

There is no indication in the public record of Cantú engaging in any unlawful activity.  Video of the protest shows him standing to the side with other journalists, apparently wiping pepper spray out of his eyes.  He was indicted along with at least six other journalists.  Charges were dropped against all but Cantú and photographer Alexei Wood.

On May 30, federal prosecutors indicted Cantú, who has written for The Intercept, Vice, Al Jazeera America, and other outlets. He faces felony charges of inciting a riot, rioting, and conspiracy to riot, along with five counts of destruction of property, which collectively could carry up to 75 years in prison.  He is scheduled to be arraigned on June 9, 2017.

“Reporter Aaron Cantú appears to have been indicted on multiple felony counts simply for being in the vicinity of property destruction. This is a serious threat to press freedom,” said Katy Glenn Bass, PEN’s director of free expression research and policy. “If prosecutors cannot produce specific, credible evidence that Cantú was directly involved in illegal acts, these charges should be dropped immediately. A reporter’s job is to follow the story and bring the facts to the public. Throwing the book at Cantú with serious rioting charges that carry the potential of a long prison term raises a real risk of deterring other journalists from attempting to cover protests.”