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Las Vegas Newspaper Battling to Shield Slain Journalist's Devices  

FILE - Investigative journalist Jeff German is pictured on the Strip in Las Vegas, June 2, 2021.
FILE - Investigative journalist Jeff German is pictured on the Strip in Las Vegas, June 2, 2021.

Nearly one year after the slaying of investigative reporter Jeff German, his former colleagues at the Las Vegas Review-Journal say the legal aftermath is raising press freedom issues that threaten to compound the tragedy.

After German was stabbed to death outside his home, the Review-Journal said, city police investigating the crime seized his phone, which may contain sensitive information such as the names of confidential sources.

"Our position is not that the phone and his computers cannot be searched. Our position is that we need independence from the people who are searching it," Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook told VOA.

The Review-Journal wants independent hearing masters to review German's devices first for any information related to confidential sources or sensitive unpublished information.

Nevada's Supreme Court will decide on the issue in the coming months.

Precedent feared

Press freedom groups are concerned that if police are given unrestricted access to German's devices, it will set a legal precedent allowing reporters' private source material to be accessed after they are killed.

The trial against Robert Telles, a former Clark County public administrator charged with German's slaying, is set to begin in November. Telles was the subject of German's reporting on alleged office mismanagement.

Telles entered a not-guilty plea to murder charges when he appeared in court in October.

The fight for justice in German's slaying is also a fight for his legacy and media freedom, Cook said.

"Having a colleague brutally murdered is bad enough," Cook told VOA in March. "But the fact that Jeff German's murder now threatens press rights and freedoms is outrageous and really has us, as a news organization, absolutely determined to make sure Jeff's legacy is the upholding of the First Amendment and not a damaging court precedent that hurts journalism everywhere."

On Wednesday, the Washington-based National Press Club announced that German and Lizzie Johnson, the Washington Post reporter who collaborated with the Review-Journal to complete the story German was working on when he was killed, would be given the President's Award at the end of August.

"This award really shows that people really care about what happened to Jeff German. And they care about this project, and they care about what it meant and that it was preserving his legacy," Johnson told VOA. "That's really gratifying to know that he's not just going to be forgotten but people are going to continue to care and follow what happens with his case."

Cook agreed that it was important to keep German's memory alive and to continue following his case.

"News media as well as news consumers move on from most stories fairly quickly. And Jeff's story is such a cautionary tale and an outrage for our own industry and for Americans in general," Cook said. "The fact that the National Press Club would recognize Jeff posthumously, even though it's been 11 months since his death, is very meaningful."

Reminder of dangers

In a statement announcing the award, National Press Club President Eileen O'Reilly said German's death underscores the threats facing journalists.

"German's career covering crime in Las Vegas spanned four decades and he was well-known for his outstanding investigative work. His loss was felt across the profession, across the region and in many a newsroom," O'Reilly said.

While Johnson appreciates the recognition for her own contribution, she said she wanted the focus to be on German.

"To me, what's more important is him getting the award and him being honored and his name continuing to stay in the spotlight. And I'm really glad that I could help do that," she said.

"I will never stop wishing that it was just his name [on the award] and that he was here and could accept it for himself and that he could have done the work himself," she said. "But he couldn't, so to be able to help out with that mission is just the honor of a lifetime."

Cook said the Review-Journal staff is in a good place a year after German's death. "We've found a lot of comfort in the company and camaraderie of each other," he said.

But Telles' trial looms, and Cook said he knows covering it will be an emotional challenge.

"I'm not kidding myself, and no one in the room is kidding themselves," he said. "We know that whenever this trial starts, it's going to be very difficult for all of us."