By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: The Ferguson, Mo., police department, backed by federal aviation officials, lied last August when they claimed that a 37 square miles air space restriction was imposed over the city because of safety concerns after the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer.
Recent audio recordings obtained by the Associated Press show that Ferguson officials privately acknowledged that the purpose of the no fly ban was to keep away news helicopters that wanted to operate in the area to cover violent street demonstrations.
“They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out,” one administration manager said about the St. Louis County Police Department in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by AP. “But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on.”
Ironically, the flight restrictions intended to hurt the media ended up backfiring on the police. The ban, as initially written, was so extensive it also barred police helicopters and commercial flights from operating in the restricted zone. The FAA was forced to modify the first no-fly mandate and issue another one.
The AP story, which appeared Sunday, reported that on Aug. 12, the morning after the FAA imposed the first flight restrictions, the agency’s air traffic managers “struggled to redefine the flight ban to allow commercial flights to operate at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and for police helicopters to fly through the area – while still prohibiting flights.”
At another point, referring to the temporary flight restrictions, a manager at the FAA’s center in Kansas City, Mo., said the police “did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this T.F.R. (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn’t want media in there.”
News of the no fly zone restrictions shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that’s been following events in Ferguson since the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. His death sparked weeks of protests across the city and the nation.
The Ferguson police department has tried everything to clamp down on street protests and media coverage of events in the city in St. Louis County. At least eight journalists were arrested or otherwise detained – two as they sat in a McDonald’s restaurant. Journalists covering street demonstrations were teargased or forced, at gunpoint, off public streets. City officials are now charging journalists exorbitant fees to obtain public documents related to the shooting.
The no fly zone is the just another in a long list of abuses of power, infringements on the press and blatant disregard for First amendment rights imposed by Ferguson police and city officials. What makes this latest incident so appalling is that federal officials went along with the charade. FAA officials granted the city’s request for flight restrictions without exercising due diligence in determining the validity for it.
The White House is trying to distance itself from the controversy. On Monday, AP reported that White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, sidestepped questions about conversations on the tapes showing Ferguson police working with the FAA to keep the media away.
“In this case, what the FAA says is that they took the prudent step of implementing the temporary flight restriction in the immediate aftermath of reports of shots fired at a police helicopter, but within 12 to 14 hours, that flight restriction was updated in a way to remove restrictions for reporters who were seeking to operate in the area,” Earnest said.
None of the St. Louis stations were advised that news helicopters could enter the airspace even under the lesser restrictions, which seemed to suggest that the area was still closed to all aircraft except the police and planes using the airport.
“Only relief aircraft operations under direction of St. Louis County Police Department are authorized in the airspace,” the notice said.
The flight restrictions, which encompassed a 3.4 mile radius around Ferguson and up to 5,000 feet in altitude, remained in place until Aug. 22.
At a news conference on Aug. 14, President Obama criticized the crackdown on the media by the Ferguson police department.
“Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying and arresting reporters who are doing their jobs,” President Obama said. “The local authorities, including police, have a responsibility to be transparent and open.”