Spill Photogs Could Face Felony Charges Under New Coast Guard Directive

© Georgianne Nienaber

Photographers and journalists reporting from the Gulf on the Deepwater Horizon spill are now subject to $40,000 fines and Class D felony convictions if they are found to be in violation of a new Coast Guard directive.

The directive established a 20-meter [65-foot] safety zone around all oil containment boom in the gulf. According to The Deepwater Horizon Unified Command press release, “[v]essels must not come within 20 meters of booming operations, boom, or oil spill response operations under penalty of law.”

In a blog post over the weekend, journalist Georgianne Nienaber argued that  this new regulation effectively prevents photographers from getting near affected areas. “If the Coast Guard has its way, all media, not just independent writers and photographers… will be fined $40,000 and receive Class D felony convictions for providing the truth about oiled birds and dolphins, in addition to broken, filthy, unmanned boom material that is trapping oil in the marshlands and estuaries,” she wrote.

According to the Coast Guard directive, “[t]he 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.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper also addressed the directive on his television show. The protestations from the press prompted a response from Unified Command that stated, “These 20-meter zones are only slightly longer than the distance from a baseball pitcher's mound to home plate. This distance is insignificant when gathering images. In fact, these zones, which do not target the press, can and have been opened for reporters as required.”

MSNBC also reported on another act of press obstruction by BP over the weekend. Lance Rosenfield, a Texas-based freelance photographer working on a story that is part of a collaboration between PBS and ProPublica, was detained when he took pictures of a BP oil refinery in Texas. According to MSNBC, “Rosenfield…said he was followed by a BP employee after taking a picture on a public road near the refinery, and then cornered by two police cars at a gas station. The officials told Rosenfield they had the right to look at the pictures taken near the refinery and if he did not comply he would be ‘taken in’.”

A response by BP officials claimed that “[t]he photographer was released with his photographs after those photos were viewed by a representative of the Joint Terrorism Task Force who determined that the photographer's actions did not pose a threat to public safety.” Editor-in-chief of ProPublica, Paul Steiger, explained, “[W]e certainly appreciate the need to secure the nation’s refineries. But we’re deeply troubled by BP’s conduct here, especially when they knew we were working on deadline on critical stories about this very facility. And we see no reason why, if law enforcement needed to review the unpublished photographs, that should have included sharing them with a representative of a private company.”

—By Cameron Handley


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19 Responses to “Spill Photogs Could Face Felony Charges Under New Coast Guard Directive”

  1. Jim Poor Says:

    I have mixed feelings on this one. If you can’t get a good photo from 65 feet, then you probably shouldn’t be there anyway, but on the other hand, BP (and govt orgs too) is going overboard trying to protect their image.

  2. Amborse Pierce Says:

    @ Jim Poor. You are kidding right? 65 feet is a long throw, and not only that, who wants to risk having some security person saying you’re too close when you’re playing it safe at 100 feet away? Is someone going to come out with a measuring tape. The problem is every time a photojournalist goes out to cover this story, they risk being hit with a felony charge. That’s absolutely ludicrous. Then again, Giuliani did this in New York after 911–he declared all of lower Manhattan a “crime scene” and therefore off limits to the press. History is repeating itself.

  3. Jeff Greenberg Says:

    ““[v]essels must not come within 20 meters of…”
    Ditch the vessel.

  4. John P Says:

    @Jeff Greenberg: ….swim?

  5. ajw93 Says:

    JTTF? Really? What?! That fills me with fear, anger, and despair all at the same time.

  6. Tim Matsui Says:

    I understand the need to establish a safe working environment for spill workers and I understand that photography can also be part of intelligence gathering for terrorist activities. I also understand that BP is suffering a public relations crisis and the tighter they can control any media about the spill the better for them.
    It saddens me to hear the US Coast Guard has obstructed media access, that local law enforcement are harassing photographers, and that BP appears to be manipulating both in support of its public relations management. I have worked with the USCG and found the individuals and the agency to be great, and I’ve also found many law enforcement officers to be fair and just. But it appears that paranoia and private interests are running the show now and encroaching on our “free” press and freedom of speech. What happened to transparency? Did it ever exist?

  7. Robert Says:

    @Ambrose: A boat drifting in a light current would cover 20 meters in just a couple of minutes or less. If I were working on a cleanup ship I wouldn’t want just any yahoo with a boat closer than that. A little inattention and you’ve now got a accident.

  8. Frank Evers Says:

    Time to call a spade a spade…its is censorship of the first order, and a blatant violation of the first amendment. Not to mention, it is a clear indication as to which side of the equation the government and local law authorities are on.
    The First Amendment (Amendment I) prohibits the making of any law…infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

  9. Lumen Photo Says:

    sounds pretty heavy handed to me, geez!

  10. Mel Says:

    How about another perspective? Would a photographer walk out on a football field to capture a close-up of the quarterback’s eyes? No, that would interfere with the play and generally be impolite. And it’s probably against the rules of the stadium or association sanctioning the game. Instead photographers (or their employers) invest in long lenses to achieve the same result. What’s the difference between this scenario and the CG restricting access to areas where clean-up is taking place?
    Regarding the latter incident, the DOJ at the federal and state level is not adequately explaining to law enforcement agencies that photographers shooting from public locations are protected by the First Amendment and not to be harassed. Then LEO’s need to be instructed their role is to protect photographers’ rights against private agents desiring to restrict information.

  11. Mike Penney Says:

    This is just an indication of what a stranglehold large corporations have on our government and law enforcement.
    Nothing new though… law enforcement has always been involved in protecting big companies… look up any town or company and add the word “massacre” to it in google. You will see law enforcement taking the corporate side and killing people for the company.
    On the other hand… I have been working as a photojournalist since 1967. For many years you might have been the only person to be at a location of a accident or some other disaster. And you had a serious responsibility to “get it right”.
    Since the invention of the “Best Buy” photographer where anyone with a camera and a blog declares themselves a “journalist” (not to mention every friggin TV station in the world) people showing up to big or celebrity events are like locusts coming down from the sky in an old bible story. And this includes war zones (where lots of fake journalists are getting killed because they know nothing about what they are doing).
    I can see why the Coast Guard and BP want to discourage “journalists”.
    And what is a “journalist” Is a bloke with a blog a “journalist”? Is a corporate photographer from Getty a “journalist”? They aren’t really there to report on anything… They are there to make money selling pictures… It is quite ironic to me that BP would get a Getty photographer arrested for covering something…. Two “oil” companies pissing on each other???
    But the overall harassment and intimidation is unacceptable.
    Making photographs or video from any place that normally is accessible to regular people is legal, period…. Tell the cops to blow off! But be prepared to get hassled.
    We are going to suffer poor news coverage for another reason. Freelance people who cover news without a “contract” including corporate support from the network or publication can’t take the risks of losing their equipment or freedom to two bit cops and homeland stupidity people because it takes legal clout and money to fight off these clowns. I simply refuse to cover anything anymore such as breaking news because I don’t have the where-with-all to fight the legal battles (especially since the compensation is so low)… I presume most of you are in the same boat.
    I often wonder if a slap suit against BP or the Coast Guard (or similar agency) could preclude harassment, and prior restraint of journalistic coverage? It worked years ago in the Pentagon Papers case but these days the federal court system has swumg so right wing it is hard to predict.

  12. Pilot Says:

    Problem solved, invest in a helicopter.

  13. Mike Penney Says:

    Helicopter does not solve problem.
    They have closed the air space over the area.
    It is very unlikely you will find a pilot who will want to risk losing his license (government control) or having the machine impounded as “evidence” of a “crime”.
    Until some entity goes to court and gets the coast guard to obey the law and first amendment without putting this stupid brand of “safety” (or the other standby crap “national security”) on the situation to restrict access probably not much is going to happen.

  14. Tom Craig Says:

    Seems more like an article about Photography in China, or other countries were freedom is a relative idea. What happened to ours?

  15. Mike Penney Says:

    It was and is just an illusion.

  16. sean Says:

    Remember when they hated us for our freedom? Looks like our government is trying to stop them from hating us…

  17. Roadkillstew Says:

    In some of the other reports in regards to Lance Rosenfield’s incident. The police collected all his personal information INCLUDING his social security # then passed this information over the the BP employee.
    I can perhaps understand the want or claimed ‘need’ for name and perhaps contact information… but social security # particularly NOT for a non Leo.

  18. GARY Says:

    Seems like the Coast Guard wants to keep the damage hided. Who are they working for? Photography is a media to let the people know what is going on. The Coast Guard should have a photo boat to guide the photographers. Typical suppression.

  19. A Fan Says:

    Maybe they should just pick a few photographers, a la FSA style (supporting local photographers) to document this and pay them for it. Every documentary photographer available or looking for a new project will be flooding here. We’ll be seeing oil photography for a long time to come.