Friday, July 9, 2010

Journalists vs. Law Enforcement: Know Your Rights

Journalists have been complaining that BP officials and local law enforcement officials have been actively preventing them from shooting photos and video of the public beaches tarnished by the catastrophic oil spill.

Both credentialed journalists from major news organizations and independent journalists say they are being illegally bullied.

One example is Marguerite Cravatt (pictured), an L.A.-based indie producer who grew up on the Gulf Coast. She brought her producing partner and a cameraperson to the Gulf Coast to shoot documentary footage along the deserted coastline of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. She says she repeatedly witnessed the media being blocked and bullied. "In one incident, a local on-duty Police Officer tried to protect the interest of BP and prohibit us from filming a sick worker being taken way in an ambulance."

Outraged, she posted her experience on YouTube:

We thoroughly address the subject of where photojournalists can legally take pictures in Chapter 16 of "Photojournalism: The Professionals' Approach." Nearly all the time, public property (such as a public beach) is fair game. Know your rights! More importantly, know what to do, and how to behave, when a law enforcement officer mistakenly tries to prevent you from recording what you are entitled to.

Photographers who disregard police directives -- even if the shooters have the right to be where they are -- can be arrested for disorderly conduct or for interfering with the performance of a police officer's duty. Continuing to take pictures or failing to move after a policeman gives you a direct order could constitute a possible felony.

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and some of its chapters have for years worked to improve the situation, and reduce conflict, by educating police and fire personnel on the role of the news media in society. The NPPA is keeping a close eye on the BP situation as well.

The NPPA has asked President Obama to order the rescinding of a ban on members of the media speaking with clean-up workers, and to instruct the federal government to work with the press to create a more reasonable "safety zone" for journalists who are covering the Gulf oil spill and attempting to document the Deepwater Horizon booming efforts.

"NPPA is outraged at reports that the U.S. Coast Guard has created an extremely restrictive 'safety zone' surrounding all Deepwater Horizon booming operations, and at reports that the federal government has banned members of the news media from speaking with clean-up workers," NPPA president Bob Carey wrote to the president.

(Read more here.)

Carey appeared on KCRW's program "To The Point" to discuss with a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman and reporters from the Times-Picayune and Time magazine how the Coast Guard's 65-square foot "safety zone" has affected journalists' reporting on the impact of one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history.

The 65 square-foot area effectively blocks reporters and photographers from getting close enough to do their jobs well. Off-duty police officers hired by BP to run security details have also been criticized for harassing journalists trying to cover the story. BP now says efforts to stop the spill may pay off in the next few weeks, but what’s happening to the flow of information about the disaster?
On a similar note, NPR's "Talk of the Nation" program yesterday addressed the volatile issue of videotaping police in action.

The Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King resonated, in part, because it was caught on video. Now, most modern cell phones have video cameras. Many police departments struggle to draw the line between citizens' and journalists' rights to film arrests, and their officers' rights to privacy.
Incredibly, in some states you can get arrested for taking video of an arrest -- even if you're on public property and not interfering with the arrest.

In its half-hour segment, "The Rules and Your Rights for Recording Arrests," we hear from guests
Radley Balko, senior editor, Reason; Carlos Miller, arrested for photographing police making an arrest; and James Machado, executive director, Massachusetts Police Association.

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