CBS journalists were filming a beach in South Pass, Louisiana, when, according to CBS, a "boat of BP contractors and two Coast Guard officers told them to turn around or be arrested." The incident is thought by bloggers tracking the oil leak in the Gulf to not be the only time that BP has challenged the right of journalists to film.
If in fact BP has instructed crews to specifically regulate and turn away groups with video cameras or even still cameras, this raises many questions about what Americans are able to access and not access, what they are able to document and not document.
Should a person have to be embedded with authorities, corporations or organizations at the center of a disaster in order to document a disaster? Must a person be with a recognized news organization that regularly gets into press conferences in order to film critical events like the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico right now?
RAW STORY noted the effect of BP’s restrictions on reporting on the disaster and leak so far and mentioned how anecdotes from bloggers have become "a primary source of additional information." Keep in mind the videos released by BP so far have only been released as a result of pressure from Congress and other organizations. That is why BP is finally releasing a live feed of the leak.
Journalists were told by "someone aboard the boat" this is BP’s rules, not ours. That alone would be enough to seriously question the situation and ask why citizens should have to follow rules and only document what authorities, corporations, or organizations involved grant citizens permission to document. But, the Coast Guard was present and they released a statement on the matter that was published by the Mother Nature Network.
"CBS Evening News reported they were denied access to oiled shoreline by a civilian vessel that had clean-up workers contracted by BP, as well as Coast Guard personnel on board. CBS News video taped the exchange during which time one of the contractors told them (on tape) that " … this is BP’s rules not ours."
Neither BP nor the U.S. Coast Guard, who are responding to the spill, have any rules in place that would prohibit media access to impacted areas and we were disappointed to hear of this incident. In fact, media has been actively embedded and allowed to cover response efforts since this response began, with more than 400 embeds aboard boats and aircraft to date. Just today 16 members of the press observed clean-up operations on a vessel out of Venice, La.
The only time anyone would be asked to move from an area would be if there were safety concerns, or they were interfering with response operations. This did occur off South Pass Monday which may have caused the confusion reported by CBS today.
The entities involved in the Deepwater Horizon/BP Response have already reiterated these media access guidelines to personnel involved in the response and hope it prevents any future confusion." [emphasis added]
That the Coast Guard, a national military organization, is going along with whatever happened between BP and the CBS journalists should lead those involved in the creation and production of media to be even more concerned. The Coast Guard is, with this statement, legitimizing BP’s right to limit the privileges of those wishing to document the destruction.
When one breaks down the "400 embeds aboard boats and aircraft to date" the Coast Guard claims BP has allowed, it comes out to approximately 13 embeds per day in the month since the oil rig explosion occurred. And, if each embed is one journalist, this means 13 journalists per day have been allowed (on average) to document the disaster and response efforts/failures.
Is this satisfactory? Have all those interested in documenting been allowed to embed and see the devastation? Who has been turned away because BP didn’t agree with the intentions or motivations of a videographer or how a journalist wanted to frame the story?
Read between the lines. In the U.S. war in Iraq journalists have been embedded and they have followed instructions on what to cover and not cover. Such embedding has become standard procedure. Embedding socializes those engaging in media coverage. It leads them to see what is happening from the official point-of-view that those at the center may want media coverage to come from.
The Coast Guard statement also says, "The only time anyone would be asked to move from an area would be if there were safety concerns, or they were interfering with response operations." What constitutes a safety concern or interference with response operations? If that is up to BP’s discretion, it seems like anyone deemed to be a "threat" to BP could be deemed a "safety concern" and directed to leave.
It’s unlikely that CBS will push back against BP if they have in fact been restricted from filming areas of destruction on the Gulf coast. The news organization risks access privileges if they challenge authorities. The news organization also risks advertising dollars if it mounts a campaign against BP for restricting journalist access to the Gulf.
That does not mean there should not be an increased effort to track BP’s restriction of access to the Gulf. In a time when any person should be able to be a blogger, photographer, or filmmaker and can be a blogger, photographer, or filmmaker, pushing back against a corporation’s attempts to hide what is really happening in the Gulf is unacceptable.
Unfortunately, there is no record of incidents of this nature. Despite the fact that countless journalists or videographers might share anecdotes about trying to film or document corporations like Monsanto before being threatened with arrest for filming, this is not a trend that can be discussed quantitatively yet (and certainly an organization should consider tracking this comprehensively). But, when put into a world context, it makes one wonder just how much freedom people really have in this country.
Reporters Sans Frontieres, an organization that tracks the state of press freedom around the world, consistently reports on incidents like what happened between CBS, BP and the Coast Guard.
In February 2007, journalism student Mehrnoushe Solouki, who has dual French and Iranian nationality, was arrested and held in Evin prison for a month for filming "the families of the victims of violence in the 1980s and her notes and film were confiscated." She was in Tehran with the intention of producing a documentary on the 1988 ceasefire between Iran and Iraq.
In April 2005, CBS cameraman Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein was filming a ceremony at Mosul University and was shot by U.S. troops "during an exchange with rebels." He was arrested and held by the U.S. military for a year before being released. Charges were eventually dropped making it even more likely that the fact that he was there filming with a camera was why he was ultimately arrested.
In December 2005, three television crews were prevented from covering the third round of voting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections.
In March 2004, Pakistan engaged in efforts "to stop foreign and local journalists from freely covering an offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters in the Wana region of South Waziristan."
In November 2002, prior to the U.S. invasion, French TV reporters in Iraq were preventedfrom filming. The reporters attempted to report on the "Oil Road" but were bullied and censored. Reporters Sans Frontieres reported, "Police even banned them from filming rubbish on the grounds saying "this is not good for the government’s image."
In February 2002, Palestinian police prevented journalists from covering the trial of three Palestinians charged with murder. The journalists managed to film a part of the trial but the "cassettes of the television teams were forfeited by police." This happened less than a year after a photographer and an editor for Reuters, a cameraman for APTV, the satellite television correspondent of Abou Dhabi and a photographer for the AFP had been arrested and forced to forefit their footage of a demonstration in a refugee camp in Nusseirat.
It may seem over-the-top to place the incident between BP and CBS in the context of incidents between governments and press in other countries. But, with the consent of a military organization like the Coast Guard, threats of arrest made against journalists or individuals seeking to conduct coverage of a situation especially in public areas like beaches must be compared because, if it is not challenged, the repression could rise to the level of actual arrest and detention of individuals on a regular basis.
Either journalists and individuals who believe in their right to document and gather information allow authorities, corporations or organizations to place restrictions on access or they challenge it. If challenged, invariably one must expect incidents like the ones covered byReporters Sans Frontieres to occur. If BP is serious about controlling the images and words seen in relation to the oil leak, they will have to repress people.
At a time when surveillance is entirely acceptable and normal, when cameras at traffic intersections photograph those running red lights, when cameras watch your every move in city, state, federal or private buildings, when street cameras track movements of people in areas thought to have high levels of crime, the public must decide whether it will or should assert its right to survey and cover anything in the same way that authorities, corporations or organizations would assert their right to survey and cover anything.
The democratization of media makes it possible for all of us to be, at least, amateur journalists. Coverage of events no longer has to be left up to officially recognized news organizations (see OpEdNews.com and countless other Internet news sites for further examples).
This is more than an issue of press freedom. This is an issue that concerns the public’s right to share and disseminate information.