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Three months of oil spill but one version of events: How BP is obstructing media coverage

(RSF/IFEX) - 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 2010. 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.

Meagre information

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."

Ted Jackson, 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!"

CBS News 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."

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