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Ferguson No-Fly Zone & A Brief Overview of a Tool Used to Restrict Freedom of the Press

St. Louis County police on August 17 deployed to control protests in Ferguson, Missouri

The Associated Press has reported that the United States government agreed to “restrict more than 37 square miles of airspace” over an area surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, for a period of 12 days in order to keep news helicopters from covering protests and the police response to them.

The protests took place after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was gunned down on August 9 by a white Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson. There were isolated reports of violence, however, for the most part, the people who came out to protest were predominantly engaged in peaceful assembly, commemorating Brown and calling for justice.

The St. Louis County Police Department vehemently denies that a no-fly zone was imposed to restrict media access. Spokesperson Sgt. Brian Schellman declared in a statement, “The St. Louis County Police Department reaffirms the reason the request for restricted airspace was made was due to the hostile nature of certain persons on the ground that fired gunshots at the police helicopter, as well as used a laser device pointed at the police helicopter.”

But the Associated Press’ report contains multiple quotes from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials that indicate part of the motivation for the restricted airspace involved suppressing media.

FAA air traffic managers “struggled to redefine the flight ban to let commercial flights operate at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and police helicopters fly through the area—but ban others.” In one recorded telephone conversation the AP obtained, an FAA manager says police “finally admitted it really was to keep the media out.”

“Everybody but the media is okay,” according to another recording. “Right, right.”

A manager at the FAA’s Kansas City Center is recorded saying police did not care if “commercial traffic” was in the airspace. “They didn’t want media in there.”

The FAA imposed a lesser restriction that still permitted planes to land at Lambert and enter airspace above Ferguson. It also served authorities’ goal because, as one FAA official put it, “A lot of the time the (lesser restriction) just keeps the press out, anyways. They don’t understand the difference.”

It succeeded in creating confusion. Brian Thouvenot, a news director for KMOV-TV in St. Louis, informed the Los Angeles Times that the media was never told that they could file a “flight plan to enter Ferguson” under the restrictions. “No one told us.”

KMOV-TV did manage to fly over Ferguson while the restrictions were in place, but the news helicopter was told it would have to remain at an altitude of 3,000 feet. That was not ideal for shooting footage of events as they unfolded.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta claimed on Sunday that the FAA will “never exclusively ban media from covering an event of national significance, and media was never banned from covering the ongoing events in Ferguson in this case.” Huerta also added that no media outlets had objected. But that does not change the fact that the FAA knew a large part of the motivation for a no-fly zone was to curtail and frustrate media access. The agency went along with it twisting regulations to support the requests of police.

While local news media outlets may not have filed any formal legal challenges to the flight restrictions, press freedom organizations did question the policy that was imposed.

“When their first move is to keep media helicopters away from a scene, we worry that it looks like they don’t want that coverage for a good reason,” Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), said. “They don’t want to be accountable. They don’t want people to see exactly what’s going on.”

The no-fly zone as a tool used by police to restrict media has been documented by RCFP.

In 2011, when state police in Massachusetts were searching for a suspect after a shooting, the police had the FAA impose a no-fly zone over the crime scene. They requested that media not film “any live shots from the airspace over the scene” as they attempted to secure a “formal flying ban from the FAA.”

According to RCFP, the “temporary flight restrictions” (TFR) were not appropriately issued:

Under the Code of Federal Regulations, each TFR must provide a hazard or condition as to why these restrictive measures are being implemented. But recent flight restriction approvals have raised the question as to whether the FAA is allowing local law enforcement to place overly restrictive measures limiting the scope of helicopter newsgathering without providing sufficient reason.

In the Fitchburg incident, the stated reason in the FAA-issued Notice to Airmen — commonly called a NOTAM — failed to specify any hazard or condition for limiting the airspace. The given reason was “temporary flight restrictions,” reaffirming what was already known, but not elaborating further.

Hearst Corporation, which owns WCVB-TV in Boston, objected, cited similar instances where FAA restrictions had been flawed and called attention to the “overly restrictive, baseless TFRs at the request of State Police.”

The Montgomery County Police Department requested a TFR for a “five mile radius surrounding the area” above the “outskirts of Clarksburg, Maryland,” where the body of an 11-year-old black boy was found. News organizations, according to RCFP, did not believe the FAA provided a “valid reason for limiting access to news aircraft.”

When the an BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the FAA initially restricted access to anyone from the media who wanted to fly over the scene of the disaster. And, in 2013, there was a lot of concern that Exxon Mobil was blocking access after the FAA closed airspace over Mayflower, Arkansas, while a tar sands oil pipeline gushed out thousands of barrels into the small town’s neighborhoods.

Restrictions were imposed the night that the New York Police Department raided Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in 2011. NBC and CBS were reportedly informed they could not fly their news choppers over the scene, as police aggressively cleared the park of activists.

Globally, there have been examples of this tactic being utilized by police. During a rally against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the Philippines in 2008, a news media organization was prohibited from flying over the area where the three-hour protest took place.

In 2000,  the Peruvian Air Force imposed a no-fly zone to block news stations from flying their helicopters over demonstrations against President Alberto Fujimori’s government.

Given the way the FAA so easily complies with US police requests to close airspace, the current ban on “journalism drones” could be viewed as much more objectionable. News organizations, including the Associated Press, have argued that FAA prohibitions fundamentally misunderstand journalism. “News gathering is not a ‘business purpose.’ It is a First Amendment right.”

But, obviously, if reporters are able to fly drones into airspace to report on protests or police activity, law enforcement may not be able to so easily get away with utilizing force because it will all be captured on video.

The Ferguson no-fly zone was clearly a violation of First Amendment rights. It also is another reminder of the corruption that permeates all levels of government from Ferguson to St. Louis County to the state of Missouri to the federal level.

How can anyone argue that the people of Ferguson need to be patient and wait for a grand jury process to unfold before jumping to rash conclusions when this is what is happening behind closed doors?

Creative Commons Licensed Photo by Loavesofbread

CommunityFDL Main Blog

Ferguson No-Fly Zone & A Brief Overview of a Tool Used to Restrict Freedom of the Press

St. Louis County police on August 17 deployed to control protests in Ferguson, Missouri

The Associated Press has reported that the United States government agreed to “restrict more than 37 square miles of airspace” over an area surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, for a period of 12 days in order to keep news helicopters from covering protests and the police response to them.

The protests took place after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was gunned down on August 9 by a white Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson. There were isolated reports of violence, however, for the most part, the people who came out to protest were predominantly engaged in peaceful assembly, commemorating Brown and calling for justice.

The St. Louis County Police Department vehemently denies that a no-fly zone was imposed to restrict media access. Spokesperson Sgt. Brian Schellman declared in a statement, “The St. Louis County Police Department reaffirms the reason the request for restricted airspace was made was due to the hostile nature of certain persons on the ground that fired gunshots at the police helicopter, as well as used a laser device pointed at the police helicopter.”

But the Associated Press’ report contains multiple quotes from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials that indicate part of the motivation for the restricted airspace involved suppressing media.

FAA air traffic managers “struggled to redefine the flight ban to let commercial flights operate at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and police helicopters fly through the area—but ban others.” In one recorded telephone conversation the AP obtained, an FAA manager says police “finally admitted it really was to keep the media out.”

“Everybody but the media is okay,” according to another recording. “Right, right.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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