Obstructions Continue To Hinder Media Access to Oil Spill

Despite statements from the Coast Guard and BP supporting media access to sites related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, journalists continue to be threatened, intimidated, and denied access as they attempt to cover what many consider to be the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States. Considering the unprecedented and unknown impacts of the spill, the public is relying heavily on unimpeded journalists to uncover the causes, responses, and consequences of the disaster.

The Coast Guard recently restricted access to large portions of the spill area, threatening large fines and criminal charges against violators. Journalists are also reporting that local law enforcement officers have been working with – and for – BP to restrict media access.

Following reports of restricted media access in the first several weeks of the spill response, Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral now in charge of the oil spill cleanup efforts, announced on June 6 that "media will have uninhibited access anywhere we're doing operations" unless there are "safety or security" concerns.

On June 9, BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, issued a notice promising that "BP has not and will not prevent anyone working in the clean up operation from sharing his or her own experiences or opinions."

Yet since these pronouncements, journalists covering the spill continue to report on obstructions put in their way. Reporters and photographers are encountering BP contractors, local police, and federal officials – combined with federal policies – aimed at restricting access, thereby limiting the public's knowledge and understanding of the oil spill.

Contrary to Allen's assertion that the media would have "uninhibited access," the Coast Guard announced on June 30 a policy prohibiting anyone, including media, from approaching within 65 feet of any response vessel or boom deployed on land or water. Violation of this order could have resulted in up to a $40,000 civil penalty, and willful violations could have resulted in a "class D felony" and a possible one- to five-year prison sentence. Because of the narrow geography of many portions of the Gulf's shoreline and wetlands, and the fact that many booms are situated on or near beaches, the 65-foot rule would have effectively prevented any media coverage of those areas.

The reaction by many journalists was defiant. According to one Associated Press (AP) photographer, "Often the general guise of 'safety' is used as a blanket excuse to limit the media's access, and it's been done before…. The total effect of all these restrictions is harming the public's right to know." In response to the criticism from media organizations, late on July 12, Adm. Allen revised the policy. The new policy will allow media representatives who obtain special credentials from the Coast Guard to enter the 65-foot "safety zone."

According to the Coast Guard, "The safety zone has been put in place to protect members of the response effort, the installation and maintenance of oil containment boom, the operation of response equipment and protection of the environment by limiting access to and through deployed protective boom." The action was not taken until 70 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank, and after more than 2.76 million feet of boom had already been deployed.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also instated a policy restricting air traffic over the spill zone. Aircraft not involved directly in the spill clean up must fly above 3,000 feet. The restriction requires media outlets to get special permission to fly below 3,000 feet. Flying at such heights makes it more difficult for photographers to get clear photos of the ground or sea surface.

Local police and BP contractors are also working to keep journalists from covering certain locations. The reports of obstructions against media access are widespread. Journalists have been prevented from or intimidated against speaking with cleanup crews. Access to public beaches has been denied. Vessels containing media personnel have been turned away from sites impacted by the spill. BP contractors are responsible for many of these actions.

Reporters for PBS recently recounted the difficulties they and other reporters have had investigating a health center set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to treat cleanup workers and area residents. The journalists, who were seeking data on the quantity and types of spill-related health problems, were repeatedly denied access. Scientists and public health advocates in the Gulf Coast region have raised concerns about the need for more information on health impacts. Such impediments to journalists harm efforts to protect public health.

Numerous reports indicate that local law enforcement officers have been cooperating with BP to restrict journalists' access to the spill, and the intimidation of reporters is not limited to locations where the oil's impacts are visible.

A photographer working for the nonprofit media organization ProPublica was detained by police and his personal information given to BP security guards. The photographer had been photographing a BP refinery in Texas.

An activist with the American Birding Association was filming BP's Deepwater Horizon response command center in Houma, LA, from a public lot across the street when a police officer approached and warned him, "Let me explain: BP doesn't want any filming. So all I can really do is strongly suggest that you not film anything right now. If that makes any sense." The activist left the area but was later pulled over by the officer and BP security guards and interrogated further. Later reports revealed that the officer who stopped the activist was not on duty at the time. Rather, the officer was working as a security guard for BP. Law enforcement officers in Louisiana are allowed to wear their uniforms when off duty, even while working for a private corporation.

Such reports of restricted media access prompted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to send a letter to all Louisiana sheriffs in coastal parishes clarifying journalists' rights. The letter explains that "members of the public have the right under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to film, record, photograph, and document anything they observe in a public place. No one – neither law enforcement nor a private corporation – has the legal right to interfere with public access to public places or the recording of activities that occur there. Nor may law enforcement officials cooperate with private companies in denying such access to the public."

Although the Coast Guard has provided access to the spill via boat, plane, and helicopter, journalists argue that this type of government-controlled access cannot provide a full account of the causes, responses, and impacts of the oil spill. By allowing journalists access – including access to non-contaminated areas far from the spill, like BP's command center or nearby refineries – there is a greater chance that important issues will be identified and disclosed to the public.

Media organizations have decried the impediments being thrown in front of journalists and urged the White House and federal agencies to remedy the situation. The restrictions on journalists weaken the public's ability to hold corporations and the government accountable. Images of oil-soaked wildlife, polluted beaches, and the methods used to clean up the oil are crucial to informing the public about what is transpiring and how effective the response is. Without the ability to capture such images, the media is denied an important tool for communicating the story. Without access to individuals on the front lines of the response, the public does not hear an important perspective on the clean up. Denying access to health centers treating exposed citizens hinders journalists who are working to piece together a broader picture of the health impacts of the spill and could consequently delay or prevent improvements to the treatment of sick workers and residents.

Media stories that break new ground, uncover incompetence and failure, or disclose neglected problems depend on more than official statements, press briefings, and government-controlled access to spill sites. As one ACLU official in Louisiana stated, "How is anybody to know what's going on, if the media doesn't have access to the story?"

Photo in teaser by flickr user New Orleans Lady, used under a Creative Commons license.

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