After months of trying, BP finally stopped (for the most part) the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico last week. Unfortunately, after the well had been spewing oil for three months, the effects of the BP oil disaster have been enormous for both the local economy, the environment, and the freedom of the press.
Yes, that’s right, freedom of the press.
Throughout the duration of the oil spill, there have been instances of both reporters and curious citizens with cameras being prevented from going to the shore where all the oil has washed up onto the beaches. The real cause for concern: it is not just BP officials who are seeking to keep cameras away from the mess, but the United States government, too.
So what is going on? Are BP and the government in collusion to hide the extent of the damage and the effectiveness of the government response from the public?
Almost immediately after the spill started, BP officials were quick to try and restrict media access to the site of the disaster, which was to be expected. However, the big shock came when the United States government (the Coast Guard in particular) restricted media access to the site by setting a 65 foot limit as to how close reporters could get to the oil booms. Because of a journalistic uproar, the ban was lifted last week. However, Congress failed to make journalistic freedom in the cleanup area a law.
Then there is always the question of civilian/freelance reporter access, which the media blackout lift doesn’t directly address, either.
Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) has documented a case where a freelance photographer, standing on a public street, took some pictures of a BP oil refinery (not even at the spill site) only to to find himself surrounded by BP security, local police, and FBI agents. With all of these law enforcement people around, the photographer eventually agreed (undoubtedly under duress) to show his photos and provide his personal information (including Social Security number) to government and BP officials. This whole situation violates Bill of Rights protections against unreasonable search and seizure. First, no citizen should be forced to provide personal information to a private corporation. Next, while police can seize a camera as evidence, they need a warrant to search the images.
Civil rights trampled underfoot.
Unfortunately, the incident just described is just one on a long line of incidents of reporters/citizens with cameras being told to leave the scene of cleanup or face legal consequences (see links below). BP spokesman Scott Dean said that these cases are more about officials and cleanup workers just not wanting to deal with reporters and the curious.
However, not a lot of people are buying this.
Marjorie Esman of the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated that she gets complaints all the time from people, both journalists and civilians, who are strong-armed into leaving oil-covered beaches/wetlands and places where people are working on the cleanup.
Also speaking about the apparent rash of censorship in the Gulf was FBI special agent Shauna Dunlap, who said that the security precautions came in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks and that “critical infrastructures” (like oil rigs) are targets of terrorists. However, this statement seems to ignore the common sense notion that no terrorist would be stupid enough to go around and shoot the spill with dSLRs and/or professional TV cameras and that, on top of this, pictures of these “sensitive” places can be found all over the Internet on places like Google Earth.
So, with the spill capped, can the assault on the first amendment be stopped, too?
We’ll have to wait and see.
For more info:
Human Rights Examiner
BP Oil News
American Civil Liberties Union