During his five years as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, Ras Baraka has often sparred with the press, and individual members of the media, and Newark’s ongoing crisis over lead contamination in its drinking water is no exception.
On Tuesday evening, Baraka’s communications team barred the news media from attending a public meeting called to enlist members of the public as volunteers to canvass city homeowners for their participation in the planned replacement of lead-tainted service lines leading to individual properties.
The news media was excluded even though the mayor’s office had issued a public advisory in advance of the session. But when media representatives arrived at Newark City Hall, they were told the press was not invited and were asked to leave.
Mark Bonamo, the editor of TAPinto Newark, said he had gone to the meeting and was surprised to see television crews packing up to leave.
“When we showed up at the door, we were generally all shocked and surprised that we were not let in to what we believed was going to be a public meeting, in the public’s house, city hall,” he said, noting it was not the first time he had been asked to leave City Hall even though he was working as a journalist.
A statement released Wednesday by Frank Baraff, Newark’s director of communications, offered an explanation for the decision:
“With the intention of facilitating a productive meeting and encouraging an open dialogue with volunteers, we chose not to open the discussion to members of the press so that residents will not shy away from helping us in these efforts,” the statement read. “We know how critical members of the press are to informing the public and will update you with additional information about our efforts to get lead service lines replaced in the city. At future meetings, there will be media availability.”
Media-law experts say city officials were wrong to exclude the press from Tuesday’s meeting.
“Constitutionally, it’s a public forum. He invited the public and the media is part of the public. In fact, the media is a representative of the public,” said Bruce Rosen, a media attorney and adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School. “You can’t just shut the spigot and decide, well, in this public forum, you can come and you can’t.”
“When elected officials take it upon themselves to restrict the rights of a free press, whether they’re blocking reporters from public social media pages or restricting press access to public meetings, they violate the most fundamental amendment to our country’s Constitution,” said Phil Alongi, executive producer of NJTV News. “We won’t accept this and will continue to challenge any elected official who tries to restrict the public’s right to know.”
Baraka has been under pressure from numerous sources over his administration’s handling of the water crisis, and questions have been raised about how candid he has been in keeping the public informed about the safety of city drinking water.
But this is not the first time that Baraka has crossed swords with the press, or evicted journalists – including representatives of NJTV News – from city hall.
In 2016, after his office had alerted the press to a tour he was taking of a downtown business district, he chafed at the presence of news crews. “C’mon, man. You’re not going to turn this into a circus, are you? Please don’t follow me around with these cameras,” he said, later explaining that he was upset that the media was covering the event in the business district but had not shown up for a similar tour in a residential neighborhood.
Baraka also limits his dealings with the news media, frequently using social media to disseminate information to the public.
Baraka took to Instagram on Aug. 15 from the steps of his house with two lengthy videos to talk about the elevated levels of lead federal authorities found in a limited number of samples of Newark’s filtered drinking water. In one, the mayor is seen talking about his personal concerns about the city’s water because his wife is pregnant and shared his overall concerns about the challenge of resolving the issue. In the other, he’s shown talking with a deputy mayor and the acting director of the water and sewer utilities department about the water filters the city has given to customers to guard against lead ingestion.
Even so, the mayor’s Twitter account is blocked to NJTV News and to the public television outlet’s Senior Correspondent David Cruz in particular.
Rosen also noted that a federal appeals court had recently ruled that President Trump could not bar individuals from his Twitter account. He said the ruling was binding on Baraka.
“It’s patently unconstitutional. The decision applies directly,” Rosen said.
Rosen also said Baraka was sending the wrong message by excluding the news media.
“The last thing he needs, he’s got a serious public-health emergency, the last thing he should be doing is to antagonize the press or to make them think there’s something suspicious about what he’s doing,” Rosen added.