U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Florida journalist barred from governor’s COVID-19 briefing

Incident Details

Date of Incident
March 28, 2020

Denial of Access

Government agency or public official involved
Type of denial
Government event
REUTERS/Tom Brenner

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis greets the U.S. president on March 9, the same day he declared a state of emergency due to the novel coronavirus. A reporter who requested social distancing measures for media was later barred from a COVID-19 briefing.

— REUTERS/Tom Brenner
March 28, 2020

A reporter was barred from attending a press conference held by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on the COVID-19 pandemic at the state capitol in Tallahassee on March 28, 2020.

Mary Ellen Klas — the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau chief, who also reports for the Tampa Bay Times — was denied entry to the capitol to attend DeSantis' news briefing, where Florida's lieutenant governor, director of emergency management and state surgeon general also appeared.

Outside of the capitol, Meredith Beatrice, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, told Klas she could not attend because she had previously requested "social distancing" at these briefings. Beatrice said the briefings were available to view on Florida Channel, a government access television network. Klas countered that this would not afford her the opportunity to ask questions.

Klas posted a video of her exchange with Beatrice to Twitter:

“I asked for social distancing. I didn’t ask to be excluded,” Klas said in a story about the incident by the Miami Herald's David Smiley.

A few days prior, Klas had requested that the governor's news briefings, in accordance with public health guidelines, be modified to allow for practicing social distancing. One option she suggested was moving them to a Zoom-style videoconference where reporters would have the opportunity to ask questions without having to meet in close quarters, according to the Herald’s story.

This request was repeated in writing in a March 20 letter signed by editors from the Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times, el Nuevo Herald, Bradenton Herald, Palm Beach Post, Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun Sentinel.

"The briefing room at the Emergency Operations Center is typically packed with reporters in a room about 15-20 feet wide. Reporters are seated in chairs close together. At the Wednesday briefing, there were 22 reporters and photographers in the room," the letter stated. "We’d ask, respectfully, that the state move these briefings to a larger space to accommodate all reporters in person and at recommended distances. Alternatively, we would ask that the state set up a small pool of reporters for each briefing along with the ability for the governor and staff to take questions from press corps members outside the room through a live-stream. Either option, or a combination of both, would preserve access to these critical meetings and ensure a safer environment for all concerned."

That letter did not receive a reply, but briefings were subsequently moved to the governor’s office at the capitol, where a hand-selected group of reporters were invited to attend and everyone else could watch via livestream, Klas told the Committee to Protect Journalists. Klas and others were able to submit questions in writing, but did not have any of them answered. So Klas decided to attend the March 28 briefing in person, but was turned away.

But a television reporter waiting outside the capitol, Mike Vasilinda, was allowed in to the press conference after a Florida Department of Law Enforcement drove out to pick him up, Klas tweeted.

On Twitter, Klas posted the questions she had planned to ask DeSantis at the press conference:

Helen Aguirre Ferré, DeSantis' main spokeswoman, told the Herald in an email that another reporter from the paper had been told about the press conference. “Every endeavor is made to ensure the public continues to have full access to information as the safety and security of Florida residents is our greatest concern,” Ferré wrote.

In an editorial, the Miami Herald dubbed the move "vindictive, petty — and illegal." DeSantis, the editorial board wrote, “should be ashamed because, in not allowing Klas to do her job and ask the serious questions that deserve his serious answers, he is really denying access to the Floridians who look to these media outlets for vital information.”

CPJ program director Carlos Martinez de la Serna also decried the move in a statement: “Authorities in Florida and throughout the United States must show they are taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, and should accommodate requests from journalists to follow guidance by public health experts,” he said. “Now is the time for the government to increase its transparency and access for the press, not limit it. Governor DeSantis should let Mary Ellen Klas and all other reporters cover his government freely.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].