Washington Post journalist suspended after tweeting about Kobe Bryant rape case hours after his death

Kate Ng
AP

A journalist from the Washington Post has been suspended after tweeting a link to a story about Kobe Bryant’s rape case from 2016 shortly after news of his death was made public.

Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter for the newspaper, said she received “abuse and death threats” from thousands of people after she tweeted the link to the Daily Beast story.

“Well, THAT was eye-opening,” she said. “To the 10,000 people (literally) who have commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats, please take a moment and read the story – which was written 3+ years ago and not by me.

“Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality, even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling. That folks are responding with rage and threats toward me (someone who didn’t even write the piece but found it well-reported) speaks volumes about the pressure people come under to stay silent in these cases.”

Backlash from fans of Bryant, who died alongside his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people in a helicopter crash on Sunday, was swift, with many labelling Ms Sonmez a “terrible person” and generating the hashtag #firefeliciasonmez.

One person said: “@washingtonpost you should #firefeliciasonmez for this classless and heartless post with the passing of an iconic superstar literally HOURS after a horrific crash that also killed his daughter and 7 others along with them.”

Another said: “@washingtonpost @JeffBezos you can’t possibly continue to employ someone this classless, unsympathetic, and unremorseful a person as @feliciasonmez. I don’t agree with cancel culture but this is an exception.”

Ms Sonmez also added a tweet that contained a screenshot of her email inbox with a message containing verbal abuse and the name of the sender clearly visible, which may be the reason for her suspension.

“Hard to see what’s accomplished by messages such as these,” she said. “If your response to a news article is to resort to harassment and intimidation of journalists, you might want to consider that your behaviour says more about you than the person you’re targeting.”

Ms Sonmez has since deleted the tweets and has been placed on “administrative leave”, said Washington Post managing editor, Tracy Grant.

Ms Grant told the Independent: “National political reporter Felicia Sonmez was placed under administrative leave while the Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated the Post newsroom’s social media policy. The tweets displayed poor judgement that undermined the work of her colleagues.”

An anonymous employee from the Washington Post told California-based journalist and blogger Matthew Keys the screenshot may “violate Twitter’s terms of service” as it contained the full name of the email sender and Ms Sonmez’s managers “don’t care about the Daily Beast tweet”.

The private helicopter containing Bryant, 41, and the other victims went down on Sunday morning outside Los Angeles at about 10am. An investigation is underway.

Bryant is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, and became a legend at the Los Angeles Lakers.

He was a five-time NBA champion and won an Oscar in 2018 for best short animated film for Dear Basketball.

In 2003, he was charged with sexual assault after a 19-year-old woman accused him of rape. However, the accuser decided not to testify in court and to pursue a civil suit instead. Prosecutors dropped the case the following year.

After the charges were dropped, Bryant said in a statement: “First, I want to apologise directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologise to her for my behaviour that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year.

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognise now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.

“After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

The accuser’s civil suit was settled out of court in March 2005 and Bryant never spoke publicly about the case again.

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