WASHINGTON — On Monday, 26 press-freedom, civil-rights, labor and civil-liberties groups submitted a letter urging a regional U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to release unjustly detained journalist Manuel Duran Ortega.
The Memphis police arrested Duran on April 3 while he was covering a local protest over the targeting of undocumented immigrants by local and federal law-enforcement agencies. The local police arrested Duran and charged him with disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway or passageway, even though he was wearing a press badge around his neck and was identified by others as a member of the media.
Memphis authorities dropped the charges against Duran on April 5, but then turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has detained Duran in Jena, Louisiana, with plans to deport him to El Salvador, where he has faced death threats for past reporting as the manager of a local TV station.
“As organizations advocating for press freedom, immigrant rights and racial justice, we are outraged by Duran’s arrest and detainment, which are in direct violation of the First Amendment,” reads the letter, which Free Press organized. Signers include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, Index on Censorship, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, PEN America, Reporters Without Borders North America and WITNESS, among other groups. (The full letter is online here and below.)
“Duran’s arrest and subsequent detention are an attack on the First Amendment and press freedoms in our country,” said Free Press Senior Director of Strategy and Engagement Joseph Torres. “It also silences an essential journalistic voice in Memphis who has provided the Spanish-language community with the news and information they need to stay engaged with what’s happening in their city.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing Duran, and the Latino community in Memphis believe Duran is being targeted because of his critical coverage of the city’s police department and the Department of Homeland Security. Duran has written stories about police abuse and misconduct, immigration detention centers and coordination between Memphis police and ICE. According to his lawyers, Duran faces an immediate threat of deportation.
The text of the ICE letter follows below:
Mr. David D. Rivera
Director of the New Orleans Field Office
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
1250 Poydras, Suite 325
New Orleans, LA 70113
cc: Scott L. Sutterfield: Assistant New Orleans Field Office Director, ICE
We, the undersigned organizations, are calling for the immediate release of unjustly detained journalist Manuel Duran Ortega.
As organizations advocating for press freedom, immigrant rights and racial justice, we are outraged by Duran’s arrest and detainment, which are in direct violation of the First Amendment.
Duran is a well-known and respected journalist in Memphis. He is also an undocumented immigrant who fled El Salvador over a decade ago — where he worked as a TV station manager — after his life was threatened.
The Memphis police arrested Duran on April 3 while he was covering a local protest over the targeting of undocumented immigrants by local and federal law enforcement agencies. Duran was livestreaming the protest that took place during the city’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The police claim they arrested Duran for refusing orders to get off the street. Two women held onto Duran while he was being arrested and told the police several times that he was a journalist. Duran also wore a press badge around his neck. But the police arrested Duran anyway and charged him with disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway or passageway.
The Memphis police dropped the charges against Duran on April 5. But instead of releasing him, they turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Duran is now being detained in Jena, Louisiana.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing Duran, and the Latino community in Memphis believe Duran is being targeted because of his critical coverage of the city’s police department and Department of Homeland Security. He wrote stories about police abuse and misconduct, immigration detention centers and coordination between Memphis police and ICE.
Newspapers such as The Nashville Tennessean and The Memphis Commercial Appeal have also denounced his arrest and detention.
We do as well. The First Amendment guarantees a free press. That means that reporters like Duran can’t be subject to censorship by the government, nor can government use any measures to prevent the expression of ideas before they are published, or to punish reporters for doing their job. Prior restraint by any official means is clearly unconstitutional.
We are calling on ICE to release Manuel Duran Ortega immediately. The unlawful arrest of Duran violates his First Amendment rights and is an attack on press freedom in our country.
American Civil Liberties Union
Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism
Center for Human Rights and Privacy
Center for Media Justice
Color Of Change
Defending Rights and Dissent
Dignity and Power Now
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Index on Censorship
Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION)
Media Law Resource Center
Media Mobilizing Project
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Hispanic Media Coalition
Public News Service
Reporters Without Borders North America
Society for Professional Journalists
Talking Eyes Media
Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center
David A. Goodman
Writers Guild of America, West