By JW August, journalist and Past President of Californians Aware
Google on the phrase “politicians intimidating journalists” and you’ll be reminded how routine the phenomenon is in countries with no First Amendment but a Strong Man at the top. You may also notice that despite our free press history, the tension is starting to come home. Here’s one timely example.
Ben Kalasho is a city councilman in El Cajon, east of San Diego. Summertime heat is soaring here and so too are tensions in an ongoing confrontation between Councilman Kalasho, elected in 2016, and two journalists who have been covering him.
The reporting that sparked this conflict involved a story that East County Magazine broke about the city councilman’s Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant.
Kalasho claimed his pageant was a nonprofit organization but didn’t provide the necessary paperwork. East County Magazine, an online news publication, reported this, and the state of California yanked his nonprofit status. Adding to his pageant woes is a lawsuit filed against him by contestants alleging he sexually harassed them. In addition, there are claims he offered to trade sex for the crown and that he posted nude fake photos of a pageant queen who accused him of running a fraudulent pageant.
Reporter Paul Kruze and editor Miriam Raftery of East County Magazine, the target of Kalasho’s wrath, say the councilman uses his Facebook page to rally supporters to attack the journalists with a series of provocative messages.
He appears to have adopted the playbook of other politicians by demeaning the journalists, questioning their credibility and urging supporters to do the same. He calls journalism a racket. He says the journalists involved are fakes and losers. He claimed in one Facebook post that reporters have come to council hearings to see him because they are “consumed by the cereal I eat or the cologne I wear.”
The 10-year-old East County Magazine is intensely local, covering issues often overlooked by the larger media outlets in San Diego County. The publication has been recognized for its reporting by the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists, among others.
Kalasho has used Facebook to exact revenge for what he says is biased coverage. Raftery says his vitriolic language is wide-ranging, attacking her and reporter Kruze with “libelous and malicious posts on social media.”
The magazine also found Kalasho is currently on probation after pleading guilty to not having workers’ compensation insurance at his car wash business.
“Kalasho has been harassing, libeling and defaming me and our publication for months, ever since we started reporting on his many ethical and legal challenges,” says editor Raftery
When reporter Kruze attempted to speak to a businessman appealing a decision before the city council regarding a conditional use permit, he was cut off abruptly by Kalasho. The councilman speaking loudly in the chamber told the businessman “don’t let him interview you” and “ignore him”. At this point, the businessman pushed away from the reporter. Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, called the incident another example of the bullying going on now by politicians who don’t like reporters doing their job. As Francke noted, reporter Kruze was harassed by a politician for ordinary interviewing, at a time when the President of the United States, no less, repeatedly refers to the news media as “Enemies of the People.”
Francke said “a line has been crossed, and those marinated in resentment against journalists have taken note.”
In still another example, an attempt to videotape Kalasho who had parked his colorful vehicle (above) in an Office Depot parking lot led to what Kruze describes as an even more disturbing confrontation with the councilman—and his leashed German Shepherd. The councilman taunted the journalist, laughing and seeming to threaten to release the dog.
“It was a frightening experience,” the reporter said. He and editor Raftery said Kalasho had posted video online of him self training the animal to be an “attack dog”.
Kruze reported the incident to the El Cajon Police. He’s been told by the department the case has been referred to the district attorneys office for review.
In his postings, Kalasho has a far different take on what happened in the Office Depot parking lot, describing the reporter as a stalker who frightened both him and his wife.
A review of the councilman’s description on Facebook of the incident has Kalasho claiming he is a victim, and his lawyer was going to file a police report the next day. This was in June.
In one Facebook post, Kalasho “predicts the dishonest San Diego Union will twist the story about the incident” in the parking lot.
The councilman also says he has had four death threats in 12 months during his Facebook conversation about the “deranged psychopath” Kruze.
A sampling of comments from Kalasho’s supporters about the parking lot incident includes this statement: “Oh my God that is so creepy and crazy.”
Said another follower, “they think the freedom of the press gives them carte blanche to do anything. Another chimes in with “Fxxxing Loser.”
Kalasho wrote, “Zoltan (his dog) was going nuts but remain leashed.”
“Unleash Zoltan,” someone wrote, and the councilman responds, “I wish I could.”
Another supporter suggests “I would have released Zoltan for the fun of it. These people need to be dealt with.”
“Well said. Thank you,” Kalasho responded.
One commenter includes a photo of a pistol with the caption, “I would much rather go to my grave never needing my gun, than go there wishing I had it.”
Ben Kalasho’s response to this is one word: “Truth.”
Reporter Kruze says he is just doing his job, and wonders why there is no action by the El Cajon City Council.
“It is extremely disappointing to me that the City Council has not, in the least, called for his censure or publicly spoken out on his misbehaviors,“ he says.
Raftery and Kruze believe the El Cajon Council is intimidated by Kalasho.
Kalasho has already sued the city claiming discrimination, which worries the council, believes Raftery. If the council were to censure Kalasho or curtail his privileges, it could be viewed as retaliatory, reporter Kruze suspects. Said Raftery, “I cannot imagine any court would find it retaliatory to censure an elected official found to have sexually harassed women and threatened reporters.” Raftery also partly blames the social media platforms for allowing the harassment to go on.
“Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” she said, “bear a lot of responsibility for allowing this cyber harassment and defamation to go on.”
In one small victory, Facebook eventually took down the post related to the Office Depot parking lot incident and the related comments, Raftery said.