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Deputies use photo of reporter for target practice

A photograph of journalist Lee Zurik was used for target practice by deputies at St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans.
A photograph of journalist Lee Zurik was used for target practice by deputies at St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans.

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, March 7, 2012 – The International Press Institute (IPI) today urged a Louisiana sheriff to respond with the utmost seriousness following the use, by deputies, of a journalist's photograph for target practice after he reported on alleged voter fraud by sheriff's employees.

Sheriff Jack Stephens of St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans, apologised last week after WVUE Fox 8 News reported that his deputies targeted a black and white photo of Fox 8 News correspondent Lee Zurik's face at a department shooting range.

Stephens, who admitted that the incident happened more than once, told Fox 8 News that he would change department policy on use of photographs at the shooting range. But he declined to initiate disciplinary action, saying that his deputies held no ill will for the reporter and that the episodes were not intended as a threat.

IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: “It is shocking that police officers sworn to uphold the Constitution would use the image of a journalist – one whose only offence was exercising the right to freedom of the press – as a target. This action, even if in jest, raises grave questions about deputies' attitudes towards the media. The St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Department needs to treat the issue with the utmost seriousness and to ensure that this type of behaviour is not repeated.”

Fox 8 News said Zurik may have earned deputies' ire when he reported on a list of people who voted on Oct. 22, 2011 in an election to choose a successor to Stephens, who is set to retire on July 1. That election winnowed a four-way field down to a Nov. 19, 2011 choice between Stephen's second-in-command, Chief Deputy Jimmy Pohlmann, and St. Bernard Parish Councilman Wayne Landry.

Despite a law preventing voters who receive a homestead exemption in one parish from voting in another, Zurik's list indicated that dozens of members of the Sheriff's Department may have improperly voted in the October election despite not having lived in the parish since it was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Those voters were ultimately allowed to cast ballots in the November runoff election, which Pohlmann won with 60 percent of the vote.

According to Fox 8 News, records show that some of the Sheriff's Department officers at the shooting range on two of the days when Zurik's picture was targeted were also at the centre of the voting controversy.

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