Tuesday, July 6, 2010


If you think you are getting the whole story about the BP oil spill and subsequent efforts to contain and clean it up, guess what: You’re not. In fact, the story has been stymied from all quarters since the beginning of this catastrophe. First, it was BP stalling the press from getting the whole story or photographing the unfolding tragedy. Now, the U.S. government has weighed in with unreasonably punitive new rules of its own.

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander for the government’s response to the BP spill, has routinely been less than transparent about what is happening along the coast of Louisiana and surrounding areas. But now, his secrecy has taken a giant leap. Last week, Allen announced tighter restrictions on press coverage of the spill. The new rules invoke a 65-foot required distance from all animals, workers and equipment related to the spill. Violators will face fines of up to $40,000 and possible Class D felony charges. A Class D felony charge carries the potential of a jail sentence of up to 25 years. Admiral Thad Allen calls the 65 feet rule a “safety and security zone.”

Allen defends the new rule by saying local government officials have complained that there could be safety and security issues involved. So far, not one local government official has owned up to those concerns. So what is really going on here? Watch:

Add to this the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has already imposed air restrictions that prevent planes from flying below 3,000 feet over the entire spill area. So, we are not allowed to see clear images from the sky or on the ground. How do you feel about that? Me? I’m not feeling too good about it. As I see it, my First Amendment rights are being violated by the U.S. government, and by BP, a public corporation. After Allen’s new proclamation, BP was quick to issue an open invitation to the media. Reportedly, cards went out from BP to 40,000 cleanup workers informing them that they can talk to the media if they want to. How interesting that BP believes it has the authority to give American citizens “permission” to speak to other American citizens. Arrogant would be an understatement. But BP evidently felt it needed to do quick damage control after the government effectively issued a media blackout. Good cop, bad cop, you might say.

BP’s new open policy toward the press apparently did not reach the security department of BP’s Texas City, TX refinery. Photographer Lance Rosenfeld, covering the spill for ProPublica was detained by a BP security officer, local police and a man who identified himself as an agent of the Department of Homeland Security. Listen to what Rosenfeld had to say about the experience:

What happened here is in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution. And if you think that this form of censorship is an isolated incident within our government, consider the new directive issued by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Back in February, Gates announced the Pentagon would lift the ban on coverage of dead military personnel, whose bodies routinely arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. That seemed like a step in the right direction. However, recently General Stanley McChrystal, senior military commander in Afghanistan, was relieved of his command after statements he made to a Rolling Stone Magazine reporter, criticizing President Obama. Very few Americans disagreed with the decision to replace McChrystal. However, after this incident, Gates imposed new restrictions on media interviews with military personnel. No interviews will take place now without first being authorized by the Pentagon. Again, this is your government controlling the flow of information from your military. As a reporter, I can only imagine the hoops one would have to jump through to get the Pentagon to approve an interview. Those hoops equal delays of information, which equals keeping the public (you) in the dark about issues that directly affect your life.

So, what are we citizens to conclude from the disparate Gates directives? Should we conclude that the Pentagon is okay with media coverage of the dead, but not comfortable with reportage about living military figures? And there’s more: Nothing was made public about the memo Gates issued regarding the new restrictions. The New York Times reports that the memo was funneled to the newspaper by a Pentagon official who was not authorized to release it. So, Gates, who has been repeatedly verbal about his determination to provide transparency and access to the press, evidently decided to restrict the media without even letting media organizations know about it.

Keep this in mind: Any time you lose a freedom in the country, you are not likely to get it back. We have already lost most of our right to privacy. Technology and cultural shifts intersected to cause that. Moves like the ones described herein threaten our freedom of expression. What’s next? Will private citizens be prevented from criticizing the President? Will oil spill cleanup workers be forced to sign confidentiality agreements? Will newsworthy photographs have to be approved by the government before they are made public? Every one of us, including the restrictors, loses when the free flow of information is interrupted or prevented. The national conversation and everything that informs it is critical to the democracy. The democracy may not be perfect, but the last thing it needs is arbitrary censorship.

Are you listening Secretary Gates? How about you, Admiral Allen? And how about you, citizens?

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