City of Amarillo wrong to deny access to the El Mensajero Newspaper

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Our founding fathers valued a free press so much as to include it in the First Amendment.

Arguments exist about what exactly a free press is, and why it’s deemed important enough to be included in the Bill of Rights, but a free press is undeniably a good thing for the United States.

We attend meetings and events that are open to the public. And we attend those meetings and events as a representative of our readers. You might not be able to get away from your busy life to go to a city council meeting. But we go, so that we can report to you all of the information you need to know for your day-to-day life.

Preserving open government and holding elected officials accountable is essential to democracy, and those values are particularly critical during a crisis.

The editor of a local Latino newspaper says the city of Amarillo’s Communications Department has 'marginalized' and 'humiliated' the publication in recent weeks.

“Unfortunately, communities are consistently marginalized and ignored, including in the city of Amarillo, Texas. El Mensajero Newspaper, as part of the media, has informed the Latino community in the region since 1989, but in the last weeks has also been marginalized, humiliated and treated as having little respect for authorities," Dr. Ramon Godoy, editor of the El Mensajero Newspaper, told the Amarillo Globe News.

According to the AGN article, Godoy claims El Mensajero was muted from asking questions by the Amarillo Communications Department during a recent COVID-19 update by city and local officials. Godoy believes the city was limiting questions to what the Communications Department was considering major news outlets.

“When we were barred from asking live questions, we decided to attempt to ask questions in writing. We asked three questions in writing and they were answered 96 hours later, which is completely reprehensible considering we are still living in a pandemic and Amarillo was considered a hot spot for a potential outbreak," Godoy told the AGN.

City of Amarillo Director of Communications Jordan Schupbach disputed Godoy's claims.

“Dr. Godoy mentions that it took us 96 hours to reply to his questions. This is not an acceptable delay for our office, so we researched the timeline to find out why the response took so long. We received Dr. Godoy’s questions on Friday, May 22 at 10:45 a.m., roughly six hours before close of regular business hours. Saturday and Sunday were non-working days. Monday was Memorial Day. We sent a response to him on Tuesday, May 26 at 9:55 a.m. So, it took our office less than eight work hours to respond to him including collaborating with other departments to check data and collate numbers for his analytical questions, which is as fast or faster than I would expect for any media inquiry," Schupbach​ told the AGN via an email statement.

Godoy did not buy Schupbach's explaination. 

“The pandemic does not take a day off. There are lives at stake. Does anyone think no one was diagnosed with COVID-19 because the virus took a holiday? I am disappointed in the manner in which my request was addressed," Godoy said.

Godoy went on to tell the AGN that he was also barred from attending a media briefing at City Hall.

“Unfortunately, we are not always able to accommodate every request for media access, particularly when social distancing guidelines are in place or when time constraints require us to limit the length of press events. If we have done a poor job of explaining those limitations to Dr. Godoy, we offer him an apology. We value our relationship with El Mensajero, and we will ensure they continue to receive all city press releases, announcements and updates, as well as timely responses to their questions so they can provide this valuable information to their readers," the Amarillo Communications Department told the AGN.

Regardless of where you get your news, the press is providing you a service, one not too many people pass on either. The ease with which Americans can tune in to their news is unparalleled.

The governor, mayors and county administrators are among those who have extraordinary powers now under emergency declarations to issue orders, waive regulations and sign contracts. It’s more important than ever to ensure the public has a clear picture of what the government is doing on their behalf and appropriate methods to hold them accountable. One step toward meeting those goals is ensuring journalists have reasonable opportunities to question those elected leaders.

For journalism to be effective in not only covering the events of the day, but also uncovering mistruth and misdeed, it requires access to people and records. 

As local journalists, that usually means questioning our local, state and federal officials. More often, though, we find a certain lack of … well, frankly, the ability to connect with some of them. 

This issue needs to be addressed.

Too often, information is withheld, embargoed or stymied. Though it is more rare, some officials resort to tactics of intimidation to prevent the release of information. Some sources are afraid to comment on issues for fear of public retaliation. 

Issues of great importance sometimes have bureaucratic hurdles. Something as simple as getting an official’s comments or requesting documents through the Freedom of Information Law can often become problematic. 

It seems to take more work than it has in years before. 

We as journalists often prefer to speak directly to officials when the need arises. That’s what the public expects. We thank the many people who have worked with us on stories, both public officials and spokespersons alike, but we also ask everyone to understand the importance of the press, often regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy, even at the levels closest to the community.

Restricting access to even the smallest bits of information hinders the effectiveness of government by the people. It’s problematic for both the journalist and the municipal body that maintains government operations.

In the great tug of war match between journalists and officials over information, the media's role is to be the watchdog for the people.

We thank the officials and communication specialists who honor that premise and work diligently to uphold high standards. Our world is a better place when that happens.