The Times Picayune reports that officialdom has arbitrarily created a new freedom-of-the-press-does-not-apply zone systematically excluding the public and the media from most of the Gulf waterfront impacted by the oil spill.
The Coast Guard has put new restrictions in place across the Gulf Coast that prevent the public – including news photographers and reporters covering the BP oil spill – from coming within 65 feet of any response vessels or booms on the water or on beaches.
According to a news release from the Unified Command, violation of the “safety zone” rules can result in a civil penalty of up to $40,000, and could be classified as a Class D felony. Because booms are often placed more than 40 feet on the outside of islands or marsh grasses, the 65-foot rule could make it difficult to photograph and document the impacts of oil on land and wildlife, media representatives said.
But federal officials said the buffer zone is essential to the clean-up effort.
“The 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,” the news release said.
The Coast Guard on Tuesday had initially established an even stricter “safety zone” of more than 300 feet, but reduced the distance to 20 meters – 65 feet – on Wednesday. In order to get within the 65-foot limit, media must call the Coast Guard captain of the Port of New Orleans, Edwin Stanton, to get permission.
Photographer James Michael Duncan marvels at the way that it has suddenly become potentially a crime to photograph the oil spill.
Volunteers canâ€™t work on the beach, [ostensibly] for liability reasons. Only contracted employees can go work. Of course, those contracts expressly forbid talking with media. Every boat captain that signs on with the clean up is also expressly forbidden from talking to media or taking photographers out, even when those photographers can stay out of the way of people working. Chilling effects, all.
The Coast Guard says that you must call the Coast Guard captain of the port of New Orleans to get permission. If you buy the safety argument, that sounds sort of reasonable. Except for the fact that thereâ€™s no stated rules for who can get permission. The Times-Picayune article reports that AP photographer Gerald Herbertâ€”one of the few mainstream press photographers that has been putting out incredible shotsâ€”has asked to discuss the new policy with officials. Guess what? He hasnâ€™t received a response. …
I successfully [took several] photos without endangering any response workers, interfering with booms, or endangering wildlife. In fact, there wasnâ€™t a response worker within miles of my location. Should I be a felon for making these images?
I ask again: Why is the government helping control the message here? Whoâ€™s interest is being served? Itâ€™s certainly not the publicâ€™s interest.