Why was the press barred from the arraignment of Salman Rushdie's attacker?

(AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade, file)

There’s been a potentially interesting development in the Salman Rushdie stabbing attack. Rushdie is in the hospital in serious condition and his attacker, Hadi Matar, was due to be arraigned this morning. But it turns out that the New York Post and the Associated Press (at a minimum) were told by officials that they could not be present at the arraignment to cover the news. From the statements being given by authorities in Chautauqua County, no press was to be allowed inside. After the fact, we learned that Matar was being charged with attempted murder in the second degree and assault in the second degree. That doesn’t sound like an unfair set of charges to bring considering the nature of the attack, but the lack of press coverage would cast a shadow of suspicion on the entire affair. Officials did provide an explanation for the decision, but it seems unusual to say the least. (NY Post)

Authorities in upstate New York are barring press from attending the arraignment of Hadi Matar, the New Jersey man accused of the stabbing of writer Salman Rushdie.

Matar, 24, is scheduled to be arraigned at Chautauqua County Jail early Saturday, where he was transferred from the New York State Police barracks in Jamestown after the Friday attack.

Matar allegedly rushed the stage where Rushdie was about to give a lecture on freedom of expression at the Chautauqua Institution.

The Post received a response from a spokesman for the New York State Unified Court System. He said that the Chautauqua County jail was “not set up” to accommodate a large gaggle of press pool reporters. Apparently, they feel the facility is too small. A Chautauqua County Warden denied the AP and The Post entry to the facility. He cited “the safety and security and good running order of the facility.”

Reporters were informed that this decision was made at the local level, rather than coming from the state capital. The County Sheriff is given the discretion to “accommodate if he can.” Apparently, he decided that he couldn’t. Sheriff James B. Quattrone, a Republican, is in charge. His is an elected position.

Chautauqua County is in a somewhat more rural area of upstate New York at the far western end of the state, but it has a population of more than 125,000. The jail is located in Mayville, which is home to roughly 1,500 people so it’s not huge, but it’s also not a one-streetlight hamlet, either. You can see a picture of the jail here. It looks pretty large to me. Couldn’t they have found room for a least a few of the New York and national reporters to come in? They could have shared their information with other news outlets, as often happens when a venue where news is taking place is small.

The local Fox News station was similarly denied access. They were given the same, curt reason as to why they couldn’t cover it.

The Warden is still fairly new to the job. He was only promoted to the position last September. He really doesn’t have much of a footprint in the press and there didn’t appear to be anything controversial about the appointment.

Given all of that, I’m not going to read anything too sinister into this decision. But as I already said, it doesn’t look very good. I understand that this is a small town and they’re not used to hosting a huge media circus, so perhaps it’s somewhat understandable. But Salman Rushdie is an international figure. Having some maniacal Iran supporter nearly kill him is big news. How the authorities choose to handle Hadi Mater will be watched closely. Shutting the media (and thereby the public) out of the process will leave a poor impression with some people.

Here’s one exit question. Given the high-profile nature of this case and the victim of the attack, could this trial be moved to a larger venue? If they move down to the other end of the lake they could at least sit this up in Jamestown. Granted, that’s not a big city either but it’s far, far larger than Mayville, with a population of nearly 30,000.

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