The Ferguson No-Fly Zone Was Instituted to Keep Media Out: Report

Protestors scuffle with police during a protest at the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri, October 13, 2014. Jim Young/Reuters

The Michael Brown shooting and subsequent Ferguson, Missouri, protests rocked the nation in August. Two days after Brown was shot, on August 11th, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States instituted a "no-fly zone," effective in 37 miles of airspace around the city. The restriction lasted several days, but the temporary flight restriction had a bizarre loophole: police helicopters could still patrol through the airspace, and a modification was made to allow commercial flights to still fly through the area in and out of the neighboring Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

But others—particularly media helicopters—were strictly banned from flying through the airspace.

The Associated Press published a report today revealing that local authorities confirmed in audio recordings from August 12th, the day after the flight ban was instituted, that the purpose of the restriction was to keep news helicopters from circling the area, at the height of the tense protests and standoffs on Ferguson streets.

One such recording features an unnamed FAA manager speaking over the phone about St. Louis County Police Department, who said: "They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out."

Another FAA manager, in Kansas City, said in a recording that local law enforcement "didn't want media in there" and "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction)" all day long." The manager can be heard on tape asking a St. Louis county police official if an amendment could be made so that commercial flights could still fly through the area, to which the police officer replied: "I have no problem with that whatsoever."

The report notes that since FAA procedures don't typically accommodate requests that solely keep news helicopters out of airspaces, managers worded the restriction in such a way that would keep media out, but would allow other air traffic to flow through the area. The U.S. government approved the flight ban, which was requested by local police.

The St. Louis County Police Department previously stated that the no-fly ban was instituted for safety purposes, and insisted that it wasn't to keep the media from covering the standoffs between protesters and law enforcement. The audio recordings, which AP obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, contradict past statements by law enforcement officials, and suggest that officials were consciously attempting to shield untouched images of protests and civil violence from the news.

Lee Rowland, an American Civil Liberties Union Staff attorney, said that if evidence confirmed the no-fly zone was indeed enacted to restrict media coverage, it would be "extraordinarily troubling and a blatant violation of the press's First Amendment rights."

The protests, which followed the August 9th death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, 18, by Officer Darren Wilson, were highly publicized by media reporting on the ground. Officers restricted news crews from filming, arresting some reporters and tear gassing many others. Back in October, a federal judge ruled that the constitutional rights of news crews and protestors had been violated by police.

Local police reportedly told the AP in August and again on Friday that the flight ban was instituted because shots were fired at a police helicopter. Yet the officers didn't give a report about the alleged shooting, nor did said helicopter show any signs of damage.

The ban was lifted on August 22nd, according to FAA records obtained by AP. Police reportedly wanted to extend it, however, as the name of the officer who shot Brown had not been revealed, nor had the teenager's funeral occurred. Abolishing the restriction would "bring out the emotions," confirmed a police official in the audio recordings.

The Los Angeles Times' Matt Pearce tweeted on Sunday that the resistance to free press in Ferguson mirrored the sharp restrictions imposed on the media by New York City police officials during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. According to a report by The Nation, news helicopters were grounded at Zuccotti Park, reporters on the ground were kept in a "press pen" and others who got closer were "rouged up, detained and arrested."

Lot of Ferguson similarities in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street crackdown in New York City.

— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) November 2, 2014