In Gulf Spill Area, Reporters Face Security Hurdles The detention of a photographer covering the BP oil spill in Texas is the latest case of what journalists say is a pattern of obstruction along the Gulf Coast. And in some cases, government officials have worked in concert with BP guards to restrict access.

In Gulf Spill Area, Reporters Face Security Hurdles

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The BP oil spill also presents challenges to the journalists trying to cover it. Among the biggest, say reporters, are the obstacles thrown in their path by corporate and government officials. NPR's David Folkenflik has this report.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Two police cars swooped in, a BP security guard close behind. A local police official assigned to an FBI task force came, too. They asked 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 talked - or pressured, take your pick - into showing his photographs. All of that material was shared with the BP security guard.

STEVE ENGELBERG: This is in no way, in any newsroom in the United States, considered acceptable behavior.

FOLKENFLIK: Steve Engelberg is managing editor of Pro Publica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative news site that had hired Rosenfield for a project on toxic pollution from the refinery.

ENGELBERG: You are not allowed, as a police officer, to rummage through the notebooks and photographs - not published - of newspapers. That's not how we do it in this country.

FOLKENFLIK: But similar complaints have been heard throughout the Gulf Coast. Back in May, CBS's Kelly Cobiella filed this story from South Pass, Louisiana.

KELLY COBIELLA: When we tried to reach the beach, seen here in - covered in oil, a boat of BP contractors with two Coast Guard officers on board told us to turn around under threat of arrest.

FOLKENFLIK: 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 cameras or blocked roads and beaches. In the CBS story, a Coast Guard official said he was just following BP's rules.

SCOTT DEAN: You know, I've seen those reports and I've actually experienced it myself.

FOLKENFLIK: Scott Dean is a spokesman for BP. He says sometimes people don't want to deal with the media.

DEAN: I was on a beach in Mississippi last week with a couple print reporters and a camera crew. 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. I explained to him that I was a press relations, you know, person from BP and that he was free to speak and he just chose not to.

FOLKENFLIK: The only limitations, Dean says, involve personal safety, the integrity of the cleanup effort and national security.

DEAN: The more people know the better, because we have more than 40,000 people working on this response. We're working around the clock to make this situation right. And we very much want that story to be told.

FOLKENFLIK: But Marjorie Esman isn't so sure. She's the executive director of the Louisiana Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and she hears a lot of complaints.

MARJORIE ESMAN: They come in every day. We've had TV, radio, print, photographers, bloggers, all kinds of reporters.

FOLKENFLIK: Esman recently sent a public letter of complaint to the sheriffs of nine Louisiana parishes.

ESMAN: This country can only function with an independent media that access to what the government is doing. How is anybody to know what's going on, if media doesn't have access to tell the story?

FOLKENFLIK: Which takes us back to Texas City and the flap over the police stop of the Pro Publica photographer. Shauna Dunlap is a special agent with the FBI, based in Houston. She says such stops have become common around sensitive sites since the September 2001 terror attacks.

SHAUNA DUNLAP: 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 oftentimes.

FOLKENFLIK: And Dunlap says BP has also been threatened by what she says are environmental terrorists.

DUNLAP: There is a heightened security around those types of facilities, especially with BP's.

FOLKENFLIK: But Steve Engelberg of Pro Publica says that's over reaching.

ENGELBERG: 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 journalist's material.

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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