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Oklahoma Governor Calls for Resignations as Officials Discuss Killing Journalists

People in Idabel, Okla., call for the resignation of several McCurtain County officials at a county commissioners meeting April 17, 2023, after tapes with the officials' racist comments surfaced. (Christopher Bryan/Southwest Ledger via AP)
People in Idabel, Okla., call for the resignation of several McCurtain County officials at a county commissioners meeting April 17, 2023, after tapes with the officials' racist comments surfaced. (Christopher Bryan/Southwest Ledger via AP)

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt is calling for the resignation of four state officials after a local newspaper released a secret audio recording in which they appeared to discuss killing journalists and lynching Black people.

“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County,” Stitt said in a statement. “There is no place for such hateful rhetoric in the state of Oklahoma, especially by those that serve to represent the community through their respective office.”

Stitt has called for the immediate resignation of McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings, Investigator Alicia Manning and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix.

The recording was first detailed by the McCurtain Gazette-News after its publisher left a voice-activated recorder inside the room after a March 6 county commissioner’s meeting.

The journalist was cited in reports saying he did this because he believed the group was continuing to conduct county business after the meeting had ended, which is a violation of the state’s Open Meeting Act.

In the recording, the officials appear to discuss killing journalists and complain about no longer being able to lynch Black people.

“I know where two big deep holes are here if you ever need them,” Jennings said. “I’ve known two or three hit men. They’re very quiet guys,” Jennings later said in the conversation. “And would cut no [expletive] mercy.”

VOA could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording.

The McCurtain County sheriff department told VOA it had no comment.

In the recording, Jennings also appears to complain about not being able to hang Black people, saying, “They got more rights than we got.”

“It's frightening any time we see those kinds of comments come to light. At the same time, this is just an occasion where they've come to light. I don't think it's the only time they occur,” said Ted Streuli, executive director of the investigative journalism nonprofit Oklahoma Watch. "It's critical, in this situation and others, that the perpetrators be held to account."

Oklahoma City’s KFOR-TV, Channel 4 reported that about 100 McCurtain County residents gathered outside the county commissioners’ office Monday morning to protest the officials’ comments.

At a March 6 commissioners’ meeting, Bruce Willingham, the publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, secretly recorded the officials allegedly discussing the killing and burying of reporters, including his son, Chris Willingham.

Earlier this year, Chris Willingham filed a defamation claim against the county and has written multiple stories examining the sheriff’s department’s conduct, according to an article published last weekend in the McCurtain Gazette-News.

Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, told the AP the recording would be legal under the state’s law if it were obtained in a place where the officials being recorded did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

“I talked on two different occasions to our attorneys to make sure I wasn't doing anything illegal,” Bruce Willingham said.

The publisher told AP he believes the local officials were upset about critical stories the newspaper had recently published, including about the death of Bobby Barrick, an Oklahoma man who died at a hospital in March 2022 after McCurtain County deputies shot him with a stun gun.

The newspaper has filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office seeking body camera footage and other records related to Barrick’s death.

Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, told The Journal Record, a daily Oklahoma newspaper, that these threats underscore how dangerous journalism can be.

“These are serious things that should not be ignored,” Thomas told The Journal Record. “Speaking truth to power has always been dangerous, and you have to always be prepared.”

This conversation comes amid an unusually deadly period for reporters in the United States.

Las Vegas investigative reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death outside his home last September. A former county official is on trial, accused of the killing of German in retaliation for critical coverage. And in February this year, Dylan Lyons, a journalist for Florida’s Spectrum News 13 station, was shot dead while on assignment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker — a database of press freedom incidents in the United States — also has recorded more than 40 chilling statements made against journalists and news outlets since it started in 2017, including from state officials.

"It's incredibly disturbing to hear public officials fantasize about killing journalists, not to mention all the other abhorrent remarks they made,” the Freedom of the Press Foundation's advocacy director, Seth Stern, told VOA. “Although their comments are extreme, they raise questions about how many other public officials across the United States hold similar contempt for the press and how those sentiments influence their actions and policies.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has said it is “disgusted and disturbed” by the audio recordings.

“It is encouraging that authorities are looking into these recordings, and we hope their investigations are swift and transparent. Journalists should never face death threats over their work,” CPJ’s U.S. program coordinator, Katherine Jacobsen, said in a statement.

To Streuli, the implications of this incident extend beyond McCurtain County.

“The thing that bothers me the most about it is the press is the only industry protected by the Constitution,” Streuli said. “And when we see something like this, where we have employees of our government, who are sworn to uphold the Constitution, revealing such hatred toward the press for doing their jobs, I think what's frightening about that goes well beyond the individual reporters involved.”

Some information in this report came from the AP.