To say that the recent violent events in Ashburn that have been aimed at the editor of that community’s weekly newspaper gives pause for concern is an understatement. The attacks on Ben Baker, editor of the Wiregrass Farmer weekly newspaper, are attacks on the First Amendment.
On Thursday in an interview with The Albany Herald, Baker, who has spent nearly two decades at the Wiregrass Farmer, told of the terrorist acts that he and his family have endured in the past week.
The attacks began on Jan. 30 when a vandal attempted to set fire to his vehicles at his home and threw a brick through a window of his house a couple of hours before dawn. That night around 8 p.m., the danger became even more acute when gunshots were fired into the vehicles and the Bakers’ home. Fortunately, no one in the Baker family was injured. On Sunday, vandals damaged the power meter on the weekly newspaper’s office building.
Turner County Sheriff Andy Hester says Baker is the common factor in the incidents.
“It appears the crime is geared toward him,” the sheriff said. “They went to the Wiregrass office, too, so the common denominator is him, and not his family.”
The sheriff’s office, Ashburn Police Department and Georgia Bureau of Investigation are investigating these terrorist actions that strike at the heart of the First Amendment by chilling the newspaper’s ability to report the news to its readers.
A mystery, however, is why the person or people who are lashing out at Baker are doing so. Usually when newspapers, other media outlets or journalists come under attack, there’s a specific reason. Baker can’t point to any particular controversy of late that might have prompted such a violent reaction.
That makes the situation more untenable. If someone is trying to harm or intimidate you, if you know the reason, you at least know who to look out for. And the attempts to intimidate come in many forms. The Chinese, for instance, have hacked computer systems of newspapers they see as critical of China’s government, including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post. During the Occupy protests in 2011, several journalists were detained by police, often on credentialing issues or because they were caught up in mass arrests of protesters. And the Occupy protesters attacked journalists attempting to cover the story, including a TV cameraman who sustained a concussion.
More recently and closer to home, Terry Toole of Colquitt, publisher of the Miller County Liberal, learned one publication day in August that all of his newspaper racks had been emptied and the papers burned. Fortunately, the teenage culprits were proud enough of their work to record it on social media, and images were captured on business and police cameras that led to their arrests. The reason for the theft and destruction of the papers? One of the teens was in a front-page police incident article.
The only positives coming from these Ashburn attacks against Baker, his family and the newspaper he edits for Trib Publications, which is offering a $500 reward for information leading to an arrest, are these — Baker says he is getting tremendous support from the community, and he has shown no signs of changing anything in the way he reports the news in Turner County.
We hope the authorities will get to the bottom of this case quickly, that the Bakers will come through this unharmed, and that the district attorney for the circuit will prosecute those involved in these terrorist acts to the fullest extent of the law. The right to a free press, one that is able to do its job without intimidation, doesn’t just affect the Wiregrass Farmer. It impacts every one of us. And those who would silence it, particularly through violent acts, are dangerous to the liberty we all hold dear.