Between 2.9 and 4.9 million barrels of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico since the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on 20 April. It is a major environmental disaster that is rapidly turning into a national disaster. Yet the media have often found it impossible to obtain verifiable, independent information and have had to settle for what they are told by BP. And it took until 12 July for the restrictions BP imposed on journalists covering the spill to be lifted...
The journalists questioned by Reporters Without Borders for the most part said they had been shocked by the lack of information.
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed restrictions on overflights on 9 June, three weeks after the oil started pouring into the gulf. It announced that the media could not fly over the affected area at an altitude of less than 3,000 feet (914.4 metres) “for safety reasons” (http://tfr.faa.gov/save_pages/detail_0_5100.html#areas
The New York-based Associated Press
news agency objected in a letter to the White House on 10 June: “We disagree strongly that journalists could not be permitted to fly safely below 3,000 feet (...) Media aircraft covered the spill without incident from between 500 and 1,000 feet before the Temporary Flight Restriction was imposed."
, a photographer who has worked for the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune
newspaper for the past 26 years, said: “It has changed since then and now we can fly lower. But during the third week of the oil spill, when the limit was 3,000 feet, I could not even go there because I said I was media. I was in a plane and I was denied access because I said I was a media photographer. But worse still, the decision was taken by a BP consultant, not by anyone from the government!”
journalists were threatened with arrest when they tried to visit polluted beaches on 20 May to do a report on the environmental damage. According to the Associated Press
, there were at least four incidents of this kind involving journalists from 6 to 13 June.
Louisiana announced on 30 June that anyone approaching within 65 feet (20 metres) of any of the booms deployed to block oil slicks risked a fine or a felony conviction. Florida followed suit on 3 July. A felony conviction is punishable by 1 to 5 years in prison and a fine of $40,000.
All these restrictions have been widely reported and commented on by journalists on the Internet. According to Tamara Lush
, the AP
’s correspondent in New Orleans, AP
president Tom Curley
wrote to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs as early as 5 June requesting better access to information. Gibbs replied that if journalists had any complaints, they should call an information centre being operated by the federal government and BP at Houma (southeast of New Orleans).
But if you call the centre, it turns out that its job is not to field to media complaints but to manage clean-up operations. In fact it is run by the US Coast Guard. One of its employees nonetheless said: “We did not receive complaints in the past two and a half weeks. If a journalist is having a particular issue, he or she would have to send the complaint by phone or letter for us to take that request and take care of it. But I work for the coast guards so it would have to deal with the coast guards.”
Such confusion in commonplace and it is hard for journalists to know where to turn. Mac McClelland
of the magazine Mother Jones
, who has been down in the gulf covering the disaster since the outset, offers this advice: “If you are having encounters with police officers, you should ask them if they are private security for BP or actually Louisiana cops. Some wearing Louisiana cop uniforms can earn extra money by being a security guard for BP.”
Read the interview of Mac McClelland, journalist of Mother Jones magazine
In other words, it is hard to know who is in charge, except BP.
After so much bad publicity, the US authorities reaffirmed the supremacy of the First Amendment on 12 July, making it possible for more media to cover the oil spill. One of the first organisations to react was the American Civil Liberties Union. Its Louisiana representative, Marjorie Esman, said: “This change is needed to ensure public access to information about this catastrophe. This was a significant improvement for media but it still was not enough because it does not allow the general public the access that they are entitled to have. Everybody has the right to access the beaches. They are public land.”
However, and surprisingly, lifting the restrictions has not led to greater access to independent information. No independent expert opinions are available and reporters still cannot find alternatives to the BP sources. McClelland of Mother Jones
said: “There is no independently verified information at all. That is a real challenge. It is hard to get info on clean-up when you cannot talk to clean-up workers. Even when you call the coast guards, it turns out that they are taking BP’s information.”
The University of West Florida decided to carry out tests at its own expense in order to ensure that water was not contaminated, because it had no confidence in BP.
On 9 June, the public said it trusted the media much more than BP or the White House for information about the oil spill (http://people-press.org/report/621/
). According to a CBS News
poll published on 21 June, seven out of 10 people disapproved of the way BP was handling the crisis and 47 per cent said the Obama administration was not doing enough.
Miodrag Soric is a former member of the Reporters Without Borders Germany advisory board who has visited Louisiana twice since the start of the spill. She said: “The problem in this crisis has often been the quality of journalism. Covering the spill has been like attending a PR show. BP is influencing almost everyone and many US reporters have been unable to investigate it properly. Furthermore, to actually see the oil, you have to spend a significant amount of money to rent a boat or a small plane.”
BP’s well-oiled public relations operation
- Clean the most visible
The biggest problem for reporters continues to be getting to the oil. The beaches have been cleaned quickly and the clean-up personnel have lost no time getting started on coastal areas. But that does not mean the oil is not there. Times-Picayune
photographer Jackson said: “It looks to me like there is way too much oil for these tiny boats to clean from such a huge ocean. It is an impossible task. Although the clean-up work seems to have been efficient on the beaches, it is hard to tell without any kind of independent analysis.”
- Hire your own journalists
The Wall Street Journal
, which said it was the newspaper’s policy not to comment on the problems its reporters encounter, reported in an article that BP had hired its own journalists. Planet BP
, an online newspaper targeted at BP employees, has carried favourable articles about BP’s actions. One quoted a seafood fisherman as saying: “There is no reason to be angry with BP.” BP refused to comment on its public relations strategy.
- Paying coast guards and privatising beaches
BP has sealed off part of the US public’s land. “It is the first time in 26 years that I have unable to walk on to a Louisiana beach,” Jackson said. “Usually, it has been for my personal safety. But when someone is shining a flashlight into your lens, it is obviously about restricting the access of media and not a matter of personal safety.I was prevented from doing what I needed to and I did not get the pictures I needed. ”
BP has also issued special passes to the press. An Agence France-Presse
journalist who has been covering the oil spill story since the outset said: “I was horrified to see the police only allowing access to journalists with BP passes. Having a press card made no difference. I finally managed to obtain the BP pass but only on my last reporting day.”
One of his AFP colleagues was struck by the level of surveillance of the media. “When I was down there, one of our guides was a former shrimper who is now a spokeswoman for the local fishing industry,” she said. “While we were with her on the shrimping boat, she got a call from the FBI because she had arranged to meet with a reporter from Al Jazeera
. She explained that the interview with Al Jazeera
never happened because the reporter rubbed her up the wrong way. She told me after the phone call that the FBI asked her why Al Jazeera
was covering the oil spill.”
Reporters Without Borders interviewed Toby Odone, BP’s spokesman at its Houston office. He said the company’s press relations policy had evolved in line with its handling of the crisis and as the requests for information from the press increased. “At the very beginning, we had a press briefing once a day to update the reporters,” he said. “Currently, we have it twice daily for the spill, which caused a lot of interest.”
BP has around 40 to 50 media relations people in the United States who are assigned solely to the oil spill. “At our daily briefings, we get at least 300 reporters in the US,” Odone said. “At the Houston office, we receive 50 to 100 calls a day. In London, it was much higher but since we introduced phone-in updates, it reduced the number of people there.”
BP also uses Facebook and Twitter accounts to alert the press. “Reporters always want more. They are not complaining more than usual regarding information access. We mostly give them what they need. We have a duty to inform, not to disclose. Very strict guidelines from the regular authorities.”
Recommendations for the US authorities
- Reporters Without Borders asks the White House to cite its sources whenever it provides figures and to arrange for regular alternative expert evaluations of BP’s findings.
- Reporters Without Borders urges the White House to ask BP to account for the “consultants” it hires to answer journalists’ questions and how they come to be taking such decisions as the altitude at which journalists can fly over the oil spill.
- Reporters Without Borders calls on the local police to carry out an internal investigation into the police officers being hired by security guards on the beaches, so that their role can be clearly defined.