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BP Oil Spill Update 6/10/2010

50 days in... If we continue to tolerate our elected officials and
media being denied access to PUBLIC space impacted by corporate crime
(the BP oil spill), then we really do not deserve to live in a “free”
society (and let us not delude ourselves that we still live in one).
And Obama promised "transparency" in his administration. What a joke!

Last week, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., tried to bring a small group of
journalists with him on a trip he was taking through the gulf on a
Coast Guard vessel. Nelson's office said the Coast Guard agreed to
accommodate the reporters and camera operators. But at about 10 p.m.
on the evening before the trip, someone from the Department of
Homeland Security's legislative affairs office called the senator's
office to tell them that no journalists would be allowed.

Restricted media access hinders spill coverage

By JEREMY W. PETERS The New York Times

When the operators of Southern Seaplane in Belle Chasse, La., called
the local Coast Guard-Federal Aviation Administration command center
for permission to fly over restricted airspace in Gulf of Mexico, they
made what they thought was a simple and routine request.

A pilot wanted to take a photographer from The Times-Picayune of New
Orleans to snap photographs of the oil slicks blackening the water.
The response from a BP contractor who answered the phone late last
month at the command center was swift and absolute: Permission denied.

"We were questioned extensively. Who was on the aircraft? Who did they
work for?" recalled Rhonda Panepinto, who owns Southern Seaplane with
her husband, Lyle. "The minute we mentioned media, the answer was:
'Not allowed.'"

Journalists struggling to document the impact of the oil rig explosion
have repeatedly found themselves turned away from public areas
affected by the spill, and not only by BP and its contractors, but by
local law enforcement, the Coast Guard and government officials.
To some critics of the response effort by BP and the government,
instances of news media being kept at bay are just another example of
a broader problem of officials' filtering what images of the spill the
public sees.

Scientists, too, have complained about the trickle of information that
has emerged from BP and government sources. Three weeks passed, for
instance, from the time the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April
20 and the first images of oil gushing from an underwater pipe were
released by BP.

"I think they've been trying to limit access," said Rep. Edward J.
Markey, D-Mass., who fought BP to release more video from the
underwater rovers that have been filming the oil-spewing pipe. "It is
a company that was not used to transparency. It was not used to having
public scrutiny of what it did."

Officials at BP and the government entities coordinating the response
said instances of denying news media access have been anomalies, and
they pointed out that the company and the government have gone to
great lengths to accommodate the hundreds of journalists who have
traveled to the Gulf to cover the story. The FAA, responding to
criticism following the incident with Southern Seaplane, has revised
its flight restrictions over the gulf to allow for news media flights
on a case-by-case basis.

"Our general approach throughout this response, which is controlled by
the Unified Command and is the largest ever to an oil spill," said
David H. Nicholas, a BP spokesman, "has been to allow as much access
as possible to media and other parties without compromising the work
we are engaged on or the safety of those to whom we give access."

Anomalies or not, reporters and photographers continue to be blocked
from covering aspects of the spill.

Last week, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., tried to bring a small group of
journalists with him on a trip he was taking through the gulf on a
Coast Guard vessel. Nelson's office said the Coast Guard agreed to
accommodate the reporters and camera operators. But at about 10 p.m.
on the evening before the trip, someone from the Department of
Homeland Security's legislative affairs office called the senator's
office to tell them that no journalists would be allowed.

"They said it was the Department of Homeland Security's response-wide
policy not to allow elected officials and media on the same 'federal
asset,"' said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for the senator. "No further
elaboration" was given, Gulley added.

Nelson has asked the Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano,
for an official explanation, the senator's office said.

Capt. Ron LaBrec, a Coast Guard spokesman, said that about a week into
the cleanup response, the Coast Guard started enforcing a policy that
prohibits news media from accompanying candidates for public office on
visits to government facilities, "to help manage the large number of
requests for media embeds and visits by elected officials."

In a separate incident last week, a reporter and photographer from The
Daily News of New York were told by a BP contractor they could not
access a public beach on Grand Isle, La., one of the areas most
heavily affected by the oil spill. The contractor summoned a local
sheriff, who then told the reporter, Matthew Lysiak, that news media
had to fill out paperwork and then be escorted by a BP official to get
access to the beach.

BP did not respond to requests for comment about the incident.

"I said, 'Under what authority are you telling me I have to leave?"'
Lysiak recalled. "He said he would call the sheriff."

In the first few weeks after the oil rig explosion, BP kept a tight
lid on images of the oil leaking into the Gulf. Even when it released
the first video of the spewing oil May 12, it provided only a
30-second clip. The most detailed images did not become public until
two weeks ago when BP gave members of Congress access to internal
video feeds from its underwater rovers. Without BP's permission, some
members of Congress displayed the video for news networks like CNN,
which carried them live.

For journalists on the ground, particularly photographers who hire
their own planes, one of the major sources of frustration has been the
flight restrictions over the water, where access is off limits in a
vast area from the Louisiana bayous to Pensacolaa. Each time they fly
in the area, they have to be granted permission from the FAA.

"Although there's a tremendous amount of oil, finding out exactly
where it's washing ashore or where booming is going on is very
difficult," said John McCusker, a photographer with The
Times-Picayune. "At 3,000 feet you're shooting through clouds, and
it's difficult to tell the difference between an oil slick and a
shadow from a cloud."

A spokeswoman for the agency, Laura J. Brown, said the flight
restrictions are necessary to prevent civilian air traffic from
interfering with aircraft assisting the response effort.

Brown also said the Coast Guard-FAA command center that turned away
Southern Seaplane was enforcing the essential-flights-only policy in
place at the time; and she said the BP contractor who answered the
phone was there because the FAA operations center is in one of BP's

"That person was not making decisions about whether aircraft are
allowed to enter the airspace," Brown said.
But the incident with Southern Seaplane is not the only example of
journalists being told they cannot go somewhere simply because they
are journalists. Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor at the
Associated Press, likened the situation to reporters being embedded
with the military in Afghanistan.

"There is a continued effort to keep control over the access," Oreskes
said. "And even in places where the government is cooperating with us
to provide access, it's still a problem because it's still access
obtained through the government."

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