WASHINGTON—Following newly-elected Rep. Greg Gianforte’s (R-MT) assault charge for allegedly “body-slamming” a reporter for The Guardian, PEN America, Free Press, Society of Professional Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders today filed a formal complaint with Congressional ethics officials asking that Gianforte be disciplined.  The group of press freedom organizations also wrote to President Trump expressing concern that the White House’s denigration of the media is suborning physical violence against reporters, and urged the president to denounce such violence.

On May 24, Ben Jacobs, a U.S. political reporter for The Guardian, entered an office where Gianforte was setting up for an interview with a Fox News crew.  Jacobs asked Gianforte for his views on the recently released Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Plan. According to eyewitness accounts by a Fox correspondent who was present and an audio recording of the incident, Gianforte first said he would speak to Jacobs later, then asked Jacobs to speak to a campaign spokesperson.  Then, without provocation, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck and “body slammed” him to the ground.  Jacobs called 911, and was treated and released later that night from a local hospital. 

The Gianforte campaign released a statement blaming Jacobs for the altercation, which was immediately contradicted by witness reports and the recording.  Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault.

“A member of the House hasn’t physically assaulted someone this severely since the Civil War, and we are unaware of any historical precedent for a lawmaker beating  up a reporter,” said Gabe Rottman, PEN America’s Washington Director. “While Rep. Gianforte’s apology was necessary, it was hardly sufficient.  Amid a climate of escalating hostility toward the press it is essential for the House to send a clear message to its members and to the nation that hostile treatment of the press will not be tolerated or ignored.”

The groups filed a formal complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics (“OCE”), an independent agency within Congress that can accept ethics complaints from the general public and refer them to the full House Committee on Ethics for investigation and for a disciplinary recommendation to the full House.  The press freedom groups also wrote to the House Ethics Committee reminding it of its obligation to open an investigation within 30 days of any member being charged with a crime (or to file a report to the full House explaining why it has not done so).

“It is appalling that the hostile anti-press rhetoric being used at various levels of the U.S. government has now escalated to physical violence against a journalist who simply asked a question,” said Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for Reporters Without Borders North America Bureau. “This new level of violence is completely unacceptable in a country founded on democratic values like a free and independent press.”

The groups copied both letters to President Trump, noting that the Gianforte incident is only one of several acts of physical aggression against members of the news media in the last month.  On May 9 in West Virginia, a reporter was arrested for asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question.  On May 18 in Washington, D.C., security guards pinned a reporter for CQ Roll Call against a wall and ejected him under threat of force, also for asking an FCC commissioner a question.

“It is now clear that the steady stream of criticism of the press from the president and members of his administration—including the President’s notorious claim that they are the ‘enemy of the people’—is emboldening attacks on reporters and the important work they do,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “The Trump administration’s constant demonization of the media is having a dangerous trickle-down effect.  It’s time for the president to be presidential, and defend our free press. If he refuses to speak out, President Trump is complicit in political violence.”

In April, PEN America released Trump the Truth, a report and interactive timeline cataloguing the Trump Administration’s near-daily attacks on the press in its first 100 days.

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Sarah Edkins, PEN America: sedkins@pen.org, +1 646.779.4830