by Matthew L. Schafer
In what some are now calling a “media blackout,” U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen announced in a press release on June 30th that no one could come within 65 feet of booms or other cleanup operations. A violation of the new “safety zone” mandate is punishable by a $40,000 dollar fine and up to 7 years in jail. Other crimes that fall under a Class D felony include criminal possession of a weapon and the illegal sale of a firearm.
“It’s not unusual at all for the Coast Guard to establish either safety or security zones around any number of facilities or activities for public safety and for the safety of the equipment itself,” Adm. Allen said when asked by a reporter about the new rule in a July 1st White House press conference.
Adm. Allen went on to say that the new safety zone rule was not enacted on BP’s request, but rather at the request of Florida county commissioners. This comes after a May 31st directive from Adm. Allen, which I reported on, that said, “Media shall, at all times, be afforded access to response operations.” Now, reporters can only get access if they apply for it through the Port of New Orleans.
The day following the institution of the “safety zone” law, which also makes it against the law to come within 65 feet of oil spill responders, BP released a statement along with press guidelines saying that workers should “feel free” to talk to reporters.
“BP today offered additional guidance and clarification to all personnel to ensure that members of the response team – including, but not limited to, all government, BP, and contract personnel – know they are free to talk to the media,” the press release said.
While it’s not clear how exactly reporters are to talk to cleanup responders from 65 feet away, it is clear that reporters are disgruntled, even infuriated, by the new law. In an almost five minute monologue, Anderson Cooper railed against the new law saying that the law has prevented CNN from videotaping oiled birds and untended and oiled booms.
“Transparency is apparently not a high priority with Thad Allen… these days,” Cooper said. “We’re not the enemy here. Those of us down here trying to accurately show what is happening. We are not the enemy. I have not heard about any journalist who has disrupted relief efforts.”
In a chilling Huffington Post article written by Georgianne Nienaber called Facing the Future as a Media Felon on the Gulf Coast, Nienaber says the new directive “flies in the face of the First Amendment.”
“Working and reporting from the American Gulf Coast is starting to remind me of working in Rwanda… where photos and recordings must be hidden on secreted flash drives at border crossings,” Nienaber writes.
A day after the BP press release telling employees to “feel free” to talk to reporters and two days after the enactment of the new directive, Lance Rosenfield, a freelance photographer, who was taking pictures of a BP facility in Texas City, Texas was stopped by police, BP security, and an agent for the Department of Homeland Security.
According to a Frontline/Propublica investigative report, after being followed the reporter was stopped at a gas station by two police cars. He was later questioned and his photos were reviewed by the police and BP. The pictures were of the BP refinery that exploded in 2005 killing 15 and injury 170. They were taken from public land.
What can only be called collusion between BP and the government is overly cautious at best and a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments at worst. Despite the scary implications of the new law, it’s important to remember that oil continues to be flooding into the Gulf with no end in sight.