Defending free press in West Virginia

A column by Mike Myer, executive editor of The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va. — I feel relatively certain there are a number of people who, down through the years, have thought about beheading me or storming into my office with an AK-47 blazing.

But it’s not going to happen. In the highly unlikely event that it does, the culprit(s) will face severe penalties under existing law. No matter who you are or what you do for a living, state law provides severe sanctions against anyone harming you.

Some members of the West Virginia Legislature want to change that. They want to make it a more severe crime under the law to assault a journalist than to attack most other people.

Under a bill introduced last week, journalists would be added to a list of those in other occupations, including emergency medical personnel, government representatives and health care providers, who get special protection. People who assault them are subject to longer jail or prison sentences and higher fines.

Lawmakers behind the bill have two purposes. One is to prevent assaults like the one that injured a Charleston television reporter in July. An assailant hit him with his own tripod.

Another reason for the bill is in reaction to the Paris attack in which 10 journalists were massacred earlier this month. One lawmaker said the West Virginia bill recognizes the importance of journalists and is an expression of solidarity with us.

On behalf of my colleagues in the press, thank you, legislators. Your concern and regard for us is appreciated deeply. It will be remembered.

But please, don’t do it. I think most of my fellow ink-stained wretches agree that we don’t want to be treated differently than the vast majority of our fellow West Virginians.

If you in the Legislature want to help us- and our readers, listeners and viewers – there is something you can do: Ensure the vast majority of public records are available to us and the public. Make it more difficult for public bodies to meet behind closed doors.

Laws on those subjects are already on the books. But down through the years, they have been watered down substantially. Some government officials choose not to obey them at all. Some try to get around them by charging fees for documents.

Want to stand up for a free, vigorous press? Make it less difficult for us to do our jobs – and to keep the public informed.

Myer can be reached at: [email protected].

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