Asking questions is not a crime

Asking questions is as natural to journalists as breathing.

But an Oregon legislator who also does double duty as a contracted county economic development director, apparently thinks that’s a crime — literally.

Republican State Rep. Greg Smith recently complained that reporters at the Malheur Enterprise were calling and emailing his employees too much. Smith, who is the director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department, said his employees were being sent email after hours and on weekends to their personal email accounts.

He said the Enterprise had been asked not to contact his employees outside business hours and only through a county email address.

At the time, the Enterprise was investigating why a car wash didn’t get the five-year exemption from property taxes its owners were promised in return for locating in Ontario, Ore. Smith, in his role as the economic development director, is responsible for negotiating property tax exemptions for businesses.

But instead of just griping about the coverage like any upset public figure usually does, Smith apparently went running to the county attorney claiming the Enterprise was illegally harassing him and his staff.

County Counsel Stephanie Williams said she asked the county sheriff to look into the allegation, but fortunately Sheriff Brian Wolfe said there was no crime to investigate, but only after suggesting the paper look at the statute on telephonic harassment.

While this may be considered a good ending, it’s still disturbing that government officials even entertained the idea of using criminal prosecution to silence journalists who held them accountable. That’s a stunt you’d expect to see in a totalitarian state, rather than in Oregon, where presumably the First Amendment applies in full force.

To his credit, Malheur Enterprise Editor Les Zaitz said he was not going to be bullied.

“This is an effort to get accurate information,” Zaitz told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “The public is entitled to that information — not only entitled to that information, it deserves it.”

But such tactics could easily have a chilling effect on journalists, who may debate whether pursuing a story is worth possibly going to jail.

But we are in an age where we need fearless watchdogs more than ever. With a president who has taken to discrediting any journalists who speaks truth to him, it’s not too much of a stretch to see local officials become more emboldened at trying to squelch the press.

What was telling was Smith saying he wanted “a cheerleader” to support his efforts. That’s not our job. We’re watchdogs, and our job is to hold the powerful accountable.

Reaching out to public officials is not harassment, as Smith claims. It’s due diligence, making sure the official gets to have his or her say. Sometimes that means reaching out to home phone numbers, personal emails, cellphones, even knocking on their front door.

As members of the Fourth Estate, we should follow Zaitz’s example and not let thin-skinned politicians and bureaucrats keep us from doing our job at holding government accountable.

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