Reporter denied access to Florida governor’s briefing on COVID-19

In this March 23, 2020 file photo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks during a press conference at a coronavirus mobile testing site in The Villages, Fla. The Villages, a retirement community, is one of the largest concentration of seniors in the U.S. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has been walking a tightrope for weeks during the coronavirus crisis, trying to protect both Floridians vulnerable to the virus and the cratering economy in a state of 21 million people.(AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

HAVANA TIMES – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis should allow reporters to safely cover his news briefings, and not penalize journalists who seek to follow public health guidance on social distancing, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 28, authorities at the Florida State Capitol building barred reporter Mary Ellen Klas, the bureau chief for the Miami Herald‘s Tallahassee bureau–which operates jointly with the Tampa Bay Times–from attending a news briefing by DeSantis, the lieutenant governor, director of emergency management, and state surgeon general about the COVID-19 pandemic, according to reports by both papers and Klas, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Klas told CPJ that she had asked the governor’s office to find an alternate way of holding press conferences that would allow for social distancing, so reporters would not be forced to gather in close quarters against guidance from public health experts.

“I asked for social distancing. I didn’t ask to be excluded,” Klas told the Times.

“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,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna, in New York. “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.”

In a video Klas posted to Twitter, a state spokesperson, Meredith Beatrice, told Klas that she could watch the press conference via Florida Channel, a state-funded public affairs programming service.

Klas told CPJ that watching the briefings on TV was inadequate because she could not ask officials any questions.

She said that the governor’s office had previously suggested submitting the questions in writing, but said those questions were never addressed during the briefings, spurring Klas to try to attend the March 28 briefing and ask in-person.

CPJ emailed DeSantis’ office for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.

In a press conference today, DeSantis was asked about Klas’ claim that she was barred from entering the March 28 briefing, and said that reporters should ask his communications staffers about the issue, according to a tweet from Miami Herald reporter David Smiley.

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