More than a year later, some journalists arrested at ND pipeline protests still await trial
FARGO — Jenni Monet climbed a hill overlooking the Cannonball River to shoot video of dozens of protesters against the Dakota Access oil pipeline who had put up a teepee village and stood with their arms locked in a gesture of determination.
Monet was reporting on a police operation to clear the Last Child Camp, which was taken down hours after it was erected across from the main protest camp during the prolonged protests near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2016 and early 2017.
Tensions were building in the drawn-out confrontation between police and protesters, and Monet would soon find herself caught in the crackdown. She had not stayed in the restricted area police set aside for press because, she said, it was too far away from where protesters and police had gathered.
Hundreds of protesters had been arrested during the months Monet had covered the demonstrations — then, while walking down the hill to leave the camp at the direction of a state trooper, Monet was herself arrested on Feb. 1, 2017, by a second officer, she said.
Monet, who carried press credentials with her, was flex-cuffed, bused with protesters who had been arrested, strip-searched and held for hours with 19 other women in a chain-link cage at the Morton County Detention Center before her release.
The charges against her: criminal trespass and engaging in a riot. If convicted of the misdemeanors, she could face up to a year in jail.
Her defense: "I was there doing my job."
She said she was denied a phone call to her lawyer until 25 hours after her arrest and was detained for more than 30 hours before her release.
Monet, who has pleaded not guilty to both charges, is one of about 10 journalists who were arrested while covering the anti-pipeline protests, and one of about half a dozen still facing criminal trials in Morton County, more than a year after their arrests.
"Over a year later I still have not obtained my arrest report despite repeated requests," she said. The journalists' arrests in late 2016 and early 2017 sparked calls from press freedom and journalism groups for dismissal of the charges and speedy release of confiscated cameras, recorders and memory cards.
"Journalists have an important role in documenting incidents in the public interest, including instances of civil disobedience and law enforcement operations," a coalition of journalism representatives wrote in a letter to Allen Koppy, the Morton County state's attorney, urging dismissal of the charges. "Trespass and rioting laws should require criminal intent, and journalists who are simply doing their job should not face criminal charges."
The journalist-director of a center that tracks press freedom in the United States said most American journalists who get arrested were covering protests or demonstrations, a trend that appears to have increased in recent years.
"I think what happened at Standing Rock is similar to what happened in Ferguson, even St. Louis," where demonstrations erupted after police shot and killed a black man, said Peter Sterne, managing editor of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, an effort supported by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Although part of a pattern, the arrests of journalists at Standing Rock stand out in the way their arrests and prosecutions have been handled, Sterne said.
"What's really unusual at Standing Rock is the prosecutor has refused to drop charges, even though it's clear they were just journalists doing their job," Sterne said.
It's perhaps understandable that police, in the "heat of the moment" while dealing with a mass protest, don't always take the time to determine whether a person is a journalist or a protester carrying a camera, Sterne said.
But prosecutors, who have ample time to review the circumstances of an arrest and to determine whether a person is legitimately claiming to be a journalist, should dismiss unwarranted charges, he said.
In fact, Sterne added, that's almost always what happens to American journalists who are arrested while covering a demonstration, including the protests in St. Louis and during Donald Trump's inauguration.
Koppy, the Morton County state's attorney, did not respond to phone messages and an email requesting comment on his decision not to drop the journalists' charges.
Mark Trahant, a journalism professor at the University of North Dakota, said news reporters and photographers serve an important role in covering demonstrations like those at Standing Rock — a role law enforcement officers and prosecutors should recognize.
"In a demonstration, having journalists be able to go in and cover something like this up close is essential," he said. "It's a shame it wasn't taken more seriously."
It's not difficult, Trahant said, to determine whether someone is a real journalist, since their work is easy to find online. "All you have to do is look at the bylines," he said. "Jenni is doing pretty traditional journalism."
Monet, a freelancer who has reported for Indian Country Today, The Center for Investigative Reporting, Yes! Magazine, PBS Newshour and High Country News, among other news outlets, was by the time of her arrest, which came late in the protest, a familiar face to law enforcement.
She said she had been covering the Standing Rock protests for stretches of time throughout their duration. "I was not a stranger at that point," she said. "I had a working relationship with the police at that point."
Also, Monet said she used professional audio and video equipment — all seized by police when she was arrested, but later returned.
"I completely cooperated with the police 100 percent of the time," she said. "It was very visible that I was press."
Tom Dickson, a Bismarck lawyer who represents Monet, said Morton County should drop the charges against her.
"There is a First Amendment for the press, and they should go to the story," he said. "We have to let reporters go to the news."
The arrested freelance journalists have suffered financial hardships from their arrests, because they have had to fly back to North Dakota for court appearances, sometimes having to curtail assignments, said Amanda Harris, a Mandan lawyer who has represented journalists and protesters arrested at Standing Rock.
Her client, photographer and videographer Sara Lafleur-Vetter, who was working for The Guardian newspaper, was arrested while filming demonstrators who were arrested Oct. 22, 2016, during a prayer march. Lafleur-Vetter was tackled to the ground and placed in flex-cuffs even though she was shooting with a $5,000 professional camera, and she and others identified her as a journalist.
LaFleur-Vetter was acquitted. The judge dismissed her charges after the prosecution rested; the prosecution's own photograph showed her filming the scene. But she had to fly to North Dakota from Oakland, Calif., four times for court appearances.
The arrest cost her several thousand dollars in legal fees and travel expenses, she said. She also spent two nights in jail, including time at the Cass County Jail, where she was transferred.
"I've never been arrested while doing journalism before," LaFleur-Vetter said. "That was a first."
Monet, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, said she was strip-searched after her arrest, but some white female protesters who were arrested at the same time were "spared the humiliation," although LaFleur-Vetter said she also was strip-searched.
Apparently, no North Dakota reporters or photographers were arrested at the Standing Rock protests. That might have been because the local reporters stayed behind police lines — the arrested journalists were "embedded" with the protesters — and because the local reporters were better known to the police, Sterne said.
Trahant, who is organizing a symposium, "Standing Rock & the Media" at UND on Thursday, April 19 — Monet will be the keynote speaker — said it was striking that North Dakota news outlets didn't join national groups in condemning the journalists' arrests.
"For whatever reason that didn't become a crusade in the way it would in previous generations," he said.
In a post on his blog, "Trahant Reports," Trahant expressed disappointment that the regional and national press wasn't more outspoken and united in speaking out against the arrests.
"When one journalist is threatened, we all are," Trahant wrote. "We cannot do our jobs when we worry about being injured or worse. And when a journalist is arrested? Well, everyone who claims the First Amendment as a framework should object loudly."
Monet's arrest at Standing Rock, meanwhile, has shaken her confidence in press freedoms in the U.S.
"I took it for granted that our press freedoms are secure," she said. "What a wakeup call it's been. Free speech is an American right. It's not just reserved for journalists, it's for everyone."
If you go:
What: "Standing Rock & the Media" symposium
When: Sessions from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19
Where: Memorial Union Ballroom, University of North Dakota
More information: Speakers include Jenni Monet, a journalist arrested while covering the Standing Rock protests, and other journalists including Sandy Toland of the Los Angeles Times, Renee Jean of the Williston Herald and Mike Jacobs, former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.