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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