On Grand Isle, La., a fence built by the Louisiana National Guard prevents access to booms collecting oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
On Grand Isle, La., a fence built by the Louisiana National Guard prevents access to booms collecting oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. AP
In early July, the freelance photographer Lance Rosenfield was standing on a public street in the town of Texas City, Texas, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. He was taking shots of street signs and of a nearby BP oil refinery — one of the largest in the country.
A few minutes later, as he filled his car's tank at a gas station, Rosenfield found himself penned in by police cars. A BP security guard was close behind. And, beckoned by his colleagues, a local police official assigned to an FBI task force arrived as well. They asked Rosenfield about the story he was working on. Over the next 20 minutes or so, the photographer gave his name, address, driver's license and Social Security number — and was convinced — or pressured, take your pick — to show his photographs. All of the material was shared with the BP security guard.
At Odds: Journalistic Access, Gulf Security
Rosenfield's story is the latest sign of what some journalists say is the extent to which law enforcement agencies, government officials and BP employees are willing to go to obstruct their ability to cover the devastating BP/Deep Horizon spill and its aftermath.
"This is in no way, in any newsroom in the United States, considered acceptable behavior," said Steve Engelberg, managing editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative news site Pro Publica. The site had hired Rosenfield for a project conducted with the PBS documentary series Frontline to report on toxic pollution from the refinery.
"You are not allowed, as a police officer, to rummage through the notebooks and photographs — not published — of newspapers," Engelberg said. "That's not how we do it in this country."
And yet related complaints have been heard throughout the Gulf Coast in the months since the oil spill. Back in May, CBS's Kelly Cobiella told viewers that when she and a film crew tried to take footage of a beach in South Pass, La., "a boat of BP contractors, with two Coast Guard officers on board, told us to turn around — under threat of arrest."
Reporters for cable networks, public radio stations and Mother Jones magazine have told NPR of instances since then, where law enforcement officials and security guards — some of them off-duty police officers — have strong-armed photographers, or blocked roads and beaches. In the CBS story, a Coast Guard official said he was just following BP's rules.
On several occasions since then, the Coast Guard has publicly asserted that it does not intend to inhibit reporting from public spaces. More recently, the Coast Guard issued rules that prohibit anyone from approaching oil containment booms. CNN's Anderson Cooper angrily complained that the rules prevented journalists from determining how waterfowl were faring — or whether the booms were working.
The Coast Guard has indicated that it would give any reporter a waiver to examine the booms for themselves.
BP spokesman Scott Dean said that sometimes people simply don't want to deal with the media.
"I was on a beach in Mississippi last week with a couple of print reporters and a camera crew," he said. "I went up to one of the cleanup crews and said, 'Hey, can you tell us what you're doing?' and he said, 'No, I'm sorry, I can't talk to the media.' "
Speaking from BP's Houston crisis center, Dean recalled, "I explained to him I was a press relations person from BP and he was free to speak — and he just chose not to."
Dean said the only limitations on the media involve personal safety, the integrity of the cleanup effort and national security.
"We have more than 40,000 people working on this response," Dean said. "We're working around the clock to make this situation right. And we very much want that story to be told."
But Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she isn't so sure. She has received a lot of complaints from all kinds of journalists who say they've been prevented from taking footage or reporting in public spaces such as roads or beaches.
"They come in every day," Esman said. She recently sent a public letter of complaint to sheriffs of nine Louisiana parishes.
"This country can only function with an independent media with access to what the government is doing," Esman said. "How is anybody to know what's going on, if the media doesn't have access to the story?"
Post-Sept. 11 Security Blamed
The flap in Texas City over the police stop of the Pro Publica photographer involves practices initiated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. FBI Special Agent Shauna Dunlap, of the agency's Houston field office, said that such stops have become common around sensitive sites like refineries and nuclear power plants.
"People don't think about it, but there are people out there who want to do us harm, and it's our obligation to protect our territory and these critical infrastructures that are targets," Dunlap said, adding that the oil company had also been threatened by what she said were environmental terrorists.
"There is a heightened security around those facilities, especially with BP," Dunlap said.
Asked why his company's security agent had needed to see Rosenfield's photographs and his Social Security number, BP's Scott Dean said he didn't know why the police officers shared the material — and that maybe NPR should ask them. After being contacted repeatedly for an answer, Texas City police officials said to ask the FBI.
The FBI's Dunlap said it wasn't federal practice to share a Social Security number with a private company, although she said it was reasonable for the officer assigned to her agency's task force to convince the photographer to voluntarily show his pictures.
Pro Publica's Steve Engelberg argued that the officers took their security task too far.
"I don't think anybody who created rules or regulations to protect the ports of America intended that it would end up as a pre-publication review of journalistic material," he said.