North Dakota: Stop the War on Journalists

Greg Harman

It’s the First Amendment: one of the earliest signals of the newly formed United States promising the federal government would not steamroll the interests of individuals and individual states. It established that there would be no law “infringing on the freedom of the press.” Yet, this right is constantly being challenged in practice.

Take North Dakota and the indigenous struggle for recognition of the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux nation, for the rights to clean water, for the rights to a stable climate. In recent weeks, numerous journalists have been arrested and charged with crimes for seeking to fulfill their obligation to accurately reflect for the public at large what is happening in that struggle.

This week the Society of Environmental Journalists released a statement objecting to “attempts to criminalize news gathering” in the pipeline protests taking place in North Dakota and beyond.

SEJ is not alone in their outrage over how North Dakota officials have been jailing journalists attempting to report on actions of thousands intent on stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline and related projects.

Writes SEJ President Bobby Magill:

The Society of Environmental Journalists condemns efforts to criminalize news gathering and reporting by prosecuting Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and other journalists covering protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

It is in the public’s best interest to understand all the issues surrounding the pipeline, including its construction, environmental effects and the public reaction. Whatever one’s view of the protests and the legal and regulatory issues surrounding them, they are legitimately news, and it is the job of journalists to cover these events.

North Dakota law enforcement officials seem to equate journalists covering protests with the protesters themselves. Journalists have no First Amendment right to trespass, to be sure, but they must have the freedom to report if the press is to be free, as the Constitution guarantees.

To arrest them because they’re reporting on the protests is a blatant act of intimidation. If left unchallenged, such actions will have a chilling effect on the ability of news organizations of all types to report on newsworthy events, and deprive the American public of its right to know about them.

Taken together, these attacks on First Amendment rights suggest a pattern of effort by North Dakota legal officials to suppress information about, and coverage of, protests against the North Dakota Access Pipeline.

Most published reports on this unsettling trend have focused on prominent journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! who followed the self-described water defenders onto pipeline construction grounds in early September when crews began to bulldoze believed-to-be native graves and other sacred sites.

Her account of private security agents subsequent siccing guard dogs on those protesting gripped the country’s attention and propelled, for a moment, the struggle into the national consciousness.

While riot charges against Amy Goodman were dismissed on October 17, documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg is still facing a possible 45 years in prison on multiple felony conspiracy counts. She had been filming a Standing Rock solidarity action in Walhalla, North Dakota, where activists shut down multiple pipelines carrying tar sands from Alberta, Canada, into the U.S. when she was arrested.

“When I was arrested, I was doing my job,” Schlosberg said in a statement released October 18. “I was reporting. I was documenting. Journalism needs to be passionately and ethically pursued and defended if we are to remain a free democratic country. Freedom of the press, guaranteed by the First Amendment, is absolutely critical to maintaining an informed citizenry, without which, democracy is impossible.”

Other journalism organizations have also condemned the heavy-handed police and judicial response to journalists covering the protests.

“This arrest warrant [for Goodman’s arrest] is a transparent attempt to intimidate reporters from covering protests of significant public interest,” said Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas at CPJ, in a prepared statement. “Authorities in North Dakota should stop embarrassing themselves, drop the charges against Amy Goodman, and ensure that all reporters are free to do their jobs.”

Delphine Halgand, Reporters Without Borders’s U.S. director said:

“This is clearly an attempt on the part of the North Dakota authorities to intimidate reporters from covering this topic in the future.”

The editorial board of the Illinois Journal- Courier got involved, writing in a September 14, 2016, editorial well in advance of most other condemnations by these professional organizations, “An arrest warrant. For a journalist covering a story. Outrageous.”

A petition decrying police and judicial behavior begun by a self-described 16-year-old has nearly cleared its goal of 55,000 signatures.

It calls on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

It reads in part:

In North Dakota, journalists are being targeted and arrested for covering peaceful protests against a harmful pipeline. These arrests are a clear and blatant attempt to suppress the press from reporting on human rights violations committed by the state acting on behalf of oil and gas companies.

As Earth Guardians around the globe, we demand that North Dakota officials drop the charges against journalists and that President Obama ask the DOJ to investigate the unlawful arrests.

And the citizen-journalists with Unicorn Riot, the most active of media teams on the ground, have so far seen four of their reporters arrested.

From Unicorn Riot:

Over the last month, various law enforcement agencies, private mercenary organizations, and other DAPL assets, have expanded their aerial surveillance, “information” checkpoints, and use of heavily armed riot police backed by MRAP‘s and Bearcat armored vehicles. Amidst the militarized crackdown on demonstrations against the pipeline, hundreds of people have been arrested, including four Unicorn Riot journalists.

The first two arrests of Unicorn Riot journalists covering the #NoDAPL movement were in North Dakota during a direct action on September 13th. The other two arrests occurred in Iowa, on October 7th and October 12th, while covering the Mississippi Stand direct action campaign against DAPL. All four Unicorn Riot journalists have been charged with criminal trespass, while documenting various actions taken by water protectors to stop pipeline construction. Our journalists were also strip-searched during their arrests.

These four arrests present a clear pattern of arrests and criminal charges against many independent media organizations covering resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tying journalists up in court by trespassing them from covering events, issuing warrants, bogging them down with criminal charges and paying fees, effectively guarantees the media has less resources to cover ongoing historical events.

All four have been released since posting bonds ranging from $300 to $400 dollars.

Unicorn Riot journalists and others without the cover of robust established news organizations seem to have it worst.

In one organization video, the viewer sees a Unicorn Riot representative inquiring about the status of a reporter being held in a Lee County, Iowa, jail.

The deputy responds dismissively, “You don’t have a journalist in there. I mean, you claim you’re press. You don’t even have credentials.”

So here’s another thing North Dakota needs to understand about press freedom. “Media” today takes myriad forms. It’s not just the domain of those few news organizations you may recognize. For a generation raised exclusively in a print-news world awash in “Times,” and “Journals,” and “Posts,” and “Dispatches,” Democracy Now! must sound like one radical organization. And Unicorn Riot? Reality bending.

But that’s entirely besides the point.

Speaking of a 2014 Ninth Circuit case, First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson—speaking of independent journalists via the now-somewhat-dated term “bloggers”—reminds us of how we came into this new media landscape and why it matters for North Dakotans today.

“The purpose of the free press clause of the First Amendment was to keep an eye on people in power and maintain a check on corruption. Given the cutbacks in traditional media, bloggers have taken up the slack, serving as watchdogs with attitude,” Paulson writes. “And of course, traditional reporters now blog daily, and prominent bloggers show up in traditional media.

Yet, he continues, “we still see a condescending and uninformed attitude from some lawmakers and judges who seem not to understand that digital and social media deserve the same respect as newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.”

Though I’ve worked for more than a half dozen papers, I only carried a press pass while working at three of those, and rarely wore them. Since striking out on my own, I’ve worked exclusively without one. But even I can’t help but think on their possible benefit when I hear these stories of harassment and intimidation. You know, just to be safe.

Then, watching Unicorn Riot’s coverage, I’m reminded of their actual value in the face of a so-called authority figure who is dead-set on making a statement against press freedom.

As that Unicorn Riot rep flashed his badge in defense, you can hear the official now retreating off-camera saying, “Yeah. Anybody can purchase that online.”

You know what can’t be purchased online, North Dakota?

A reputation. You know, once you’ve ruined your old one.

Greg Harman is an independent journalist based in San Antonio, Texas. He is the founder and editor of Deceleration.news. Follow him on Twitter at @Gharman.

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WhiteManWanting's picture
And don’t forget the new FEDERALLY mandated no-fly zone within 4½ miles of the protest site at Canonball, ND. The FEDGOV has stepped in to mandate that ONLY North Dakota State law enforcement aircraft are allowed over the area, thereby banning any news media as well as any privately owned drones that simply want to do their own observation (and presumably recording) of so-called “law enforcement” activities. Freedom of the press, or even personal videos by private citizens are now officially banned by action of the federal government, in favor of big business interests. There IS no other viable spin on that.