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North Dakota: Stop the War on Journalists

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TERLINGUA, Texas—“Did you not see that stop sign back there?”

The sheriff's deputy is at my window, waiting for my license and registration.

Who doesn't stop at a stop sign with a rack of police lights creeping along in the rearview? Of course I had stopped.

“That was a 'California rolling stop,'” he corrects me, before returning to his car to run my name through the system.

I'm in Terlingua, Texas, a revived “ghost town” and former mercury mining camp in Far West Texas. Less than an hour earlier I'd been photographing this same deputy debating petro-politics with man holding a bright American Indian Movement flag along the highway. I was one of two journalists who came to document a march on the Lajitas Golf Resort, a multi million-dollar complex overlooking the Rio Grande owned by Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren.

Protests against ETP for its role as a majority pipeline owner of the Dakota Access crude-oil pipeline at Standing Rock—and its ongoing construction of a natural-gas pipeline here in West Texas—have been occurring around the state. In recent weeks, groups have danced and prayed at the Alamo and marched on Warren's Dallas home. Now they were here in the most far-flung pocket of the state to say, in effect, there is nowhere the billionaire “pipeline cowboy” can hide.

But while I'll be back on the road after a few minutes of police questioning, journalists trying to cover the stand-off in North Dakota are enduring far worse, with detentions often followed by arrests and wildly inflated charges that are clearly intended to make journalists everywhere think twice about going to see just what is happening at Standing Rock.

Most published reports about this harassment have focused on prominent journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! who followed the self-described water protectors 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 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.”

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, in the struggle for recognition of the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux nation, the rights to clean water and a stable climate, this right is being challenged in dramatic fashion by the police and judiciary.

Last 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.

Writes SEJ President Bobby Magill:

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.

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

Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas at Committee to Protect Journalists, called the Goodman arrest a “transparent attempt to intimidate reporters” and said North Dakota authorities should “stop embarrassing themselves.”

"This is clearly an attempt on the part of the North Dakota authorities to intimidate reporters from covering this topic in the future," wrote Delphine Halgand, U.S. director at Reporters Without Borders.

“In North Dakota, journalists are being targeted and arrested for covering peaceful protests against a harmful pipeline,” 16-year-old activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez writes, introducing an online petition that calls on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. “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.”

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The petition as already surpassed its goal of 55,000 signatures by more than 13,000.

Not mentioned specifically in any of these statements, are the grassroots media teams with Unicorn Riot. Among the most active of media teams on the ground, UR has so far seen four of their reporters arrested at pipeline actions in North Dakota and Iowa.

Unicorn Riot journalists and others without the cover of robust established news organizations 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 officials needs to understand about press freedom. The press today takes on myriad forms. It's not just the domain of the few news organizations any one Iowa deputy 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.

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.

Speaking broadly of trends very much on display in North Dakota, Paulson 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.”

To date, I've focused my reporting on the question of how Standing Rock is changing the language and practice of protest in the most heavily pipelined state in the Union. I've taken the story of Standing Rock and viewed it through a Texas lens.

While I hope to get up north, to meet the brave men and women at the Red Warrior camp, for instance, doing such takes resources not many independents can muster.

On top of that, thanks to these patterns of press oppression, I now have to consider costs I normally wouldn't. Just how much do I need to stick in my sock in case I'm booked on charges of reporting without a license?

Observing all of this from afar, I was seriously considering making a press pass, something I haven't worn (or needed) in years. You know, just to be safe.

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

As that Unicorn Riot rep in the video flashed his badge in defense, you can hear the official now retreating off camera sneer back.

“Yeah. Anybody can purchase that online,” he says.

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

A reputation.

You know, once you've completely ruined your old one.