SEJ Letter of June 4, 2010, to Coast Guard on Media Access

June 4, 2010
 
Admiral Thad Allen, USCG
National Incident Commander
Deepwater Horizon Response Unified Command

 

Society of Environmental Journalists
Freedom of Information Task Force

 

Dear Admiral Allen,

 

The Society of Environmental Journalists is deeply disturbed at the growing number of reports we have received that journalists are being prevented from doing their Constitutionally protected jobs: to provide information to the public about the mammoth oil disaster playing out on the Gulf Coast.

 

We appreciate that you have issued a directive affirming the rights of journalists to report on this situation, work that includes getting onto beaches to observe conditions, taking pictures of injured and dead wildlife, getting forthright answers to their questions from people involved in the response effort, and more. Our understanding is that your directive applies to the Coast Guard and other local, state and federal officials, as well as BP and other involved companies.

 

However, SEJ has not been able to obtain a copy of this directive. We have been told that we must file a Freedom of Information Act request for it, with no clear timeline as to when or if the request will be addressed. This reinforces our worries that despite your best intentions, your directive will not be followed.

 

As the National Incident Commander for this disaster, you have the authority to monitor and enforce the Constitutional rights of journalists to report on the Gulf oil disaster. We strongly urge you to do this.

 

The press has encountered serious problems in the Gulf region. SEJ has received several credible reports from members that they are being arbitrarily, illegally blocked from seeing, photographing, or filming sites affected by oil contamination. Often, as these reports from the media at large document, it appears that law enforcement and Coast Guard officers are doing this at the bidding of BP:

 

On May 19, BP contractors threatened a CBS news crew with arrest, when it tried to film an oil-soaked beach in South Pass, Louisiana. "...this is BP's rules, not ours," a contractor told the crew, which filmed the incident. Two Coast Guard officers were present on the small boat carrying the BP contractors.

 

On May 20, a Mother Jones reporter found local law enforcement officers blocking beach access to sites along the Louisiana coast. When she managed to get onto a beach at Elmer's Island, five cars of sheriff's deputies drove up, stopped the reporter from taking photographs of oil washing ashore, and told her that they were cutting off access to the beach.

 

On May 25, a pilot for Belle Chasse, La.-based Southern Seaplane Inc. was denied permission for a flyover of oil slicks in the Gulf, once BP officials learned that a photographer from the New Orleans Times-Picayune would be on board.

 

On June 1, reporters from the New York Daily News were escorted by local law officers off a public beach on Elmer's Island; the officers said they were taking orders from BP. A BP contractor told these reporters that BP is actively blocking access to areas containing dead and injured wildlife.

 

We feel certain that these incidents reported to SEJ represent only a fraction of the problem, as evidenced by numerous news accounts.

 

Journalists also have told us that they are contending with a short supply of detailed information about activities to plug the Deepwater Horizon leak, protect the coast, track the spread and impact of the leaked oil, and other facets of this disaster. Some report that representatives of BP have deliberately tried to mislead them by giving out false information.

 

Journalists need accurate, timely information that will help them to ask the right questions, of the right people, and then explain the answers effectively to the public. A well-informed public is less likely to panic, and can provide support for timely and effective solutions to this crisis. But when the public discovers it has been lied to, its trust that the government can manage and ultimately solve this situation is eroded.

 

To improve press access to much-needed information, we suggest that the Joint Incident Command:

 

Move the primary location for press conferences from Robert, La. to sites convenient to the coast and/or New Orleans.

 

Provide daily situation briefings, including detailed written explanations (in a checklist or other format, as appropriate) about the operations being undertaken and their progress, and make this information available online as well as at the JIC.

 

Bring in on-the-ground experts to press conferences, to answer questions with accurate, up-to-date information.

 

Direct all responders to tell journalists how they can safely access contaminated areas -- such as by donning protective clothing or gear -- rather than simply denying them access.

 

Affirm to all responders that barring dangerous conditions that cannot be remedied, journalists have the right to access both public and private property relevant to reporting on this disaster.

 

Affirm to all responders that they are both permitted and encouraged to answer questions from journalists, fully and accurately. In situations where contractual constraints prevent an individual from answering questions, journalists should be immediately and politely informed of this fact, and directed to a person or official who can address their questions.

 

Your actions and public statements, as well as the open hearings into the accident being held jointly by the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, stand in stark contrast to the opaque investigation into the recent Massey coal mine disaster in West Virginia. We find this very encouraging, and stand ready to help preserve the Constitutional rights of journalists to report on this unprecedented environmental and economic disaster.

 

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) is an international organization of more than 1,500 working journalists, educators, and students dedicated to advancing public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality and visibility of environmental affairs reporting. Members work in a variety of mediums including television, radio and print. We work on issues like this through our Freedom of Information Task Force.

 

We look forward to your prompt response.

 

Sincerely,

 

Christy George
SEJ President

 

Senior Producer
Oregon Public Broadcasting

503-293-4001