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In the days following the shooting of teenager Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of a white police officer, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a no-fly zone over Ferguson, Mo., citing safety reasons.

At the time, police told reporters the 37-square-mile restriction zone was implemented after police helicopters had been shot at, but audio recordings obtained by the Associated Press say otherwise — the no-fly zone was put in place to keep the media away.

According to the AP:

On Aug. 12, the morning after the Federal Aviation Administration imposed the first flight restriction, FAA air traffic managers struggled to redefine the flight ban to let commercial flights operate at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and police helicopters fly through the area — but ban others.

“They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out,” said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by The Associated Press. “But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on.

At another point, a manager at the FAA’s Kansas City center said police “did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn’t want media in there.”

FAA procedures for defining a no-fly area did not have an option that would accommodate that.

“There is really … no option for a TFR that says, you know, ‘OK, everybody but the media is OK,'” he said. The managers then worked out wording they felt would keep news helicopters out of the controlled zone but not impede other air traffic.

The St. Louis County Police Department, however, maintains the restriction was never intended to keep media out of the Ferguson area to curb reports of police violence and protests. As recently as Friday, authorities told the AP that they requested the no-fly zone because shots were fired at a police helicopter.

As for the helicopter, police officials confirmed there was no damage and were unable to provide an incident report to the AP.

On the tapes, an FAA manager described the helicopter shooting as unconfirmed “rumors.”

Local authorities are in hot water for acknowledging on tape that the U.S. government sanctioned no-fly zone was to keep reporters out, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be in the clear for some time. According to the AP, who obtained the recordings under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, the audio raises some serious questions about the violation of journalists’ constitutional rights.

“Any evidence that a no-fly zone was put in place as a pretext to exclude the media from covering events in Ferguson is extraordinarily troubling and a blatant violation of the press’s First Amendment rights,” said Lee Rowland, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney specializing in First Amendment issues.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement Sunday his agency will always err on the side of safety. “FAA cannot and will never exclusively ban media from covering an event of national significance, and media was never banned from covering the ongoing events in Ferguson in this case.”

Huerta also said that, to the best of the FAA’s knowledge, “no media outlets objected to any of the restrictions” during the time they were in effect.

In the recordings, an FAA manager urged modifying the flight restriction so that planes landing at Lambert still could enter the airspace around Ferguson.

The less-restrictive change practically served the authorities’ intended goal, an FAA official said: “A lot of the time the (lesser restriction) just keeps the press out, anyways. They don’t understand the difference.”

The Kansas City FAA manager then asked a St. Louis County police official if the restrictions could be lessened so nearby commercial flights wouldn’t be affected. The new order allows “aircraft on final (approach) there at St. Louis. It will still keep news people out. … The only way people will get in there is if they give them permission in there anyway so they, with the (lesser restriction), it still keeps all of them out.”

“Yeah,” replied the police official. “I have no problem with that whatsoever.”

The no-fly zone remained in place until Aug. 22, although a police captain wanted it extended when officials identified Officer Darren Wilson, the man responsible for killing Brown.

“We just don’t know what to expect,” he told the FAA. “We’re monitoring that. So, last night we shot a lot of tear gas, we had a lot of shots fired into the air again. It did quiet down after midnight, but with that … we don’t know when that’s going to erupt.”

Read more about the no-fly zone to restrict media here.


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