Hot Tweet: Photographers Feel Rights Threatened by BP


Taking photographs of failed oil booms -- which trap oil in coastal waterways, or simply float ineffectively -- could be a class D felony and result in a $40,000 fine, according to Georgianne Nienaber's reading of this Deepwater Horizon Unified Command release. Meant 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," a 20-meter safety zone is being established around all protective boom everywhere in Southeast Louisiana.

Permission to enter the safety zone must be granted by Coast Guard Captain of the Port of New Orleans, a solution, says the investigative journalist and author, that is unworkable. In response to a comment on her blog post, she writes, getting access with Coast Guard supervision "requires 'embedding,' something most investigative reporters will refuse to do. We need freedom of access and not a chaperone." While no one has yet been arrested or even threatened with arrest in connection with the safety zone, Nienaber reports that journalists and photojournalists currently working on the coast feel as she does now: "Working and reporting from the American Gulf Coast is starting to remind me of working in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where photos and recordings must be hidden on secreted flash drives at border crossings."

While many commenters and a Coast Guard Reserve Petty Officer (whose day job, incidentally, is working for Ogilvy -- the PR firm that represents BP) insist that the requirement is to protect booms from vandalism, and that 65 feet must be close enough to photograph all the oil-soaked birds and dolphins anyone could want, Nienaber, and a few of her commenters who work in wildlife protection, disagree, asserting instead that "the reason the Ports and Waterways Safety Act was resurrected was to keep cameras and eyes as far away as possible." She also reports that CNN reporter Anderson Cooper "has said the same thing."

Nienaber's concerns -- which include the "over-the-top" worst fear that media assassinations are next -- might appear ridiculous, but another much-Twittered news report legitamizes her sense of government-supported persecution. In Texas City, Texas, photographer Lance Rosenfield was taking photos of a BP refinery for a joint project between ProPublica and PBS' Frontline news program. After taking photographs from a public roadway -- including one of a Texas City sign -- he was followed by a BP employee in a truck until he pulled over at a gas station, where two police cars blocked his way. The BP security officer, local policed, and "a man who identified himself as an agent of the Department of Homeland Security" confronted him, reviewing his pictures and recording his "date of birth, Social Security number and other personal information."

The man wasn't detained further, nor were charges filed, but he was threatened with being "taken in" by the police, and BP released this statement in response to the event: "The 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." It's a situation that ProPublica editor-in-chief Paul Steiger calls "deeply troubling," and Twitterers point out is sadly ironic, given its occurence on Fourth of July weekend.