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Media Clampdown in the Gulf Coast: Government and BP Place More Restrictions on Journalists Covering the Oil Spill

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Covering BP’s massive oil spill disaster has been a challenge for journalists, given the numerous restrictions placed by BP and, in many cases, local law enforcement and federal officials. But reporting on the spill and the cleanup efforts just got even harder. Last week the Coast Guard put new restrictions in place across the Gulf Coast that prevent the public, including photographers and reporters covering the BP oil spill, from coming within sixty-five feet of any response vessels or booms on the water or on beaches. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue on the BP issue. Covering BP’s massive oil spill disaster has been a challenge for journalists, given the numerous restrictions placed by BP and, in many cases, law enforcement and federal officials. But reporting on the spill and cleanup efforts has just gotten harder. Last week the Coast Guard put new restrictions in place across the Gulf Coast that prevent the public, including photographers and reporters covering the BP oil spill, from coming within sixty-five feet of any response vessels or booms on water or on beaches. According to a news release from the Unified Command, violation of the “safety zone” rules can result in a penalty of up to $40,000 and could be classified as a felony, which carries one to five years in prison, a Class D felony.

Appearing at a White House news conference, Admiral Thad Allen defended the new rule.

    ADM. THAD ALLEN: It’s not unusual at all for the Coast Guard to establish either safety or security zones around any number of facilities or activities for public safety and for the safety of the equipment itself. We would do this for marine events, fireworks demonstrations, cruise ships going in and out of port.

    REPORTER: Right, but we’re so far into this disaster now. Why do it now? And why the new —-

    ADM. THAD ALLEN: We had -— I actually had some personal complaints from some county commissioners in Florida and some other local mayors that thought that the — there was a chance that somebody would get hurt, or they would have a problem with the boom itself. Had not presented itself before, but once presented with it, logical thing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: The new restriction has incensed journalists trying report from the Gulf who would now need special permission to get within sixty-five feet of the beaches or the booms. This is CNN’s Anderson Cooper reacting to the latest barrier imposed on the media.

    ANDERSON COOPER: Keeping prying eyes out of marshes, away from booms, off the beaches is now government policy. When asked why now, after all this time, Thad Allen said he had gotten some complaints from local officials worried people might get hurt. Now, we don’t know who these officials are. We’d like to, but transparency is apparently not a high priority with Thad Allen, either, these days. Maybe he’s accurate, and some officials are concerned, and that’s their right. But we’ve heard far more from local officials about not being able to get a straight story from the government or BP. I’ve met countless local officials desperate for pictures to be taken and stories written about what is happening in their communities.

    We’re not the enemy here. Those of us down here trying to accurately show what is happening, we are not the enemy. I’ve not heard about any journalist who has disrupted relief efforts. No journalist wants to be seen as having slowed down the cleanup or made things worse. If a Coast Guard official asked me to move, I’d move. But to create a blanket rule that everyone has to stay sixty-five feet away from boom and boats, that doesn’t sound like transparency. Frankly, it’s a lot like in Katrina when they tried to make it impossible to see recovery efforts of people who died in their homes. If we can’t show what is happening, warts and all, no one will see what’s happening. And that makes it very easy to hide failure and hide incompetence and makes it very hard to highlight the hard work of cleanup crews and the Coast Guard. We are not the enemy here.

AMY GOODMAN: CNN’s Anderson Cooper reacting to the Coast Guard’s new rule preventing journalists from getting close to the oil-covered beaches.

Well, last night, Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat reached another journalist who's been reporting from the Gulf for the past weeks: Mac McClelland of Mother Jones magazine. This was her response to the new rule.

    MAC McCLELLAND: Well, it’s obviously a complete reversal from everything that the Coast Guard has been telling us so far, right? That it’s total transparency, media can go wherever they want. That was already not true, obviously, as everyone who’s here on the ground has been experiencing. But it’s also strange that they’re saying that the reason they had to implement this rule is because local authorities are saying that they wanted it. And local authorities down here are denying that wildly. They’re saying they didn’t have anything to do with it. They don’t know who said it, it certainly wasn’t them. So it’s hard to see any reason for that happening, other than them trying to keep media access away, which is what they’ve been saying they haven’t been trying to do this whole time.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Mac, you were one of the first reporters to sound the alarm about the restrictions on the press trying to report on the oil spill disaster. Describe some of the incidents you’ve seen and the level of cooperation between BP and local and federal law enforcement officials, even before this new ruling by the Coast Guard.

    MAC McCLELLAND: Oh, yeah. I mean, my problems with access go back, you know, more than a month now. So there are roadblocks that are manned by sheriffs’ deputies in any place that could be blocked off by a road. And places that you can’t block road access, where there’s just open beaches, there are private security contractors telling people that they have to leave. There are cleanup workers who are stationed and telling people they can’t go through. I have been kicked off several public beaches and wildlife preserves. I have been told by plenty of sheriffs’ deputies that they’re just doing their job and that they don’t have any control over it, because BP is mandating that they’re supposed to keep people away. So there’s no lack of instances. Even on video, there was a local reporter down here who went down to Grand Isle, and there were private security contractors telling him that he wasn’t allowed on this beach and that he wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone on this beach, which, of course, the ACLU and plenty of other people have pointed out is a violation of First Amendment rights. But no amount of lip service that the Obama administration or the Coast Guard was paying to this issue of access was making any difference. And now that they’ve actually banned it, I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to get.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Mac, is this ban going to stop you from going near the cleanup sites, from doing your job as a reporter?

    MAC McCLELLAND: Yeah, I’m hoping that if I get arrested, which I really hope won’t happen, that, you know, somebody will bail me out with that $40,000 fine. But, I mean, yeah, I mean, that’s what I’m here to do. That’s what everybody who’s down here is here to do. We can’t just stop working because the Coast Guard has said that we need to stay away from these various sites. And at this point, there seems to be so little oversight of not just the spill itself, but of the cleanup operations, that the press is one of the only things that we have keeping an eye on this at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland via Democracy Now! video stream from New Orleans.

Well, for more on this story, I’m joined for just a minute now from northern Minnesota by independent journalist Georgianne Nienaber, who has also been reporting from the Gulf Coast for the past several weeks. Her reports and photographs are available on Huffington Post. One of her latest posts is called “Facing the Future as a Media Felon on the Gulf Coast.”

Georgianne, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Talk about your experience being stalked by a private security company.

GEORGIANNE NIENABER: Well, the most egregious, I think, was when I was on Grand Bayou with Rosina Philippe. I think you’ve interviewed her, too, before. And we were simply taking a tour of Grand Bayou, when Louisiana wildlife officials stopped our vessel and said, basically, that “You have a fourteen-foot boat” — she has a sixteen-foot boat — and insisted that we wear life vests, which are required if you’re in less than a sixteen-foot boat. And when the official saw my camera, he said. “Put it away. No pictures.” So it clearly felt more than their concern for our safety. It was a message that we’re not to be taking pictures down there.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said these restrictions remind you of working in the Congo.

GEORGIANNE NIENABER: Absolutely. I find myself, before I plan to go back down to the Delta, thinking how am I going to get access to places? How am I going to to hide my camera? How am I going to hide my film? What will I do if somebody demands that I open my camera? And I’ve never, working in this country, had that feeling. And it’s really a terrible feeling, I’ll tell you that.

AMY GOODMAN: Georgianne Nienaber, I want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to continue to pursue this line in the next few days, looking at the crackdown on journalists in the Gulf. Thank you very much for being with us. My column this week is “Let the Information Flow as Easily as the Oil.”

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