Journalists aren’t unaccustomed to dealing with resistance when reporting on government affairs, but reporters in Malheur County were met with a new — and baffling — barrier.

The Malheur Enterprise, a small newspaper in Eastern Oregon, spent months investigating a state lawmaker’s business deals and work in the county. All seemed to be going normally until the Enterprise reported Monday the county was going to investigate the newspaper for engaging in criminal conduct.

The claim, according to the newspaper, was that reporters were sending emails to the personal email addresses of economic development officials as well as calling the officials on their cell phones.

“It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends,” said State Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, and the director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department.

Les Zaitz, the editor and publisher of the Enterprise and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, shot back at the notion that the newspaper, which was founded in 1909, was committing a crime.

“Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise,” Zaitz said.

Which is clearly what’s happening in the southeast corner of our state.

Journalists work tirelessly to pursue vital information for stories they are working on to inform the public and their readership because the public’s interest doesn’t wane with the closing of an office door. The work journalists do is vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy, according to Amanda Waldroupe, the president of Oregon’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Reporters make it a point to collect the personal contact information of their sources. It’s more streamlined than navigating a phone tree and it’s more convenient — after all, who doesn’t carry their cell phone around these days. Which is a sentiment even Smith seems to agree with. The Enterprise said Smith gave out his cell phone number at a government meeting last fall and said he was available “24/7.”

On Wednesday, Brian Wolfe, the Malheur County sheriff, said his office ended its inquiry into the allegations and that no crimes were committed.

“We believe in free speech and freedom of the press,” he added, according to the Enterprise.

But even the idea that Smith views a journalist’s actions of collecting information as criminal — and is brazen enough to attempt to squelch those efforts — is chilling.

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