How new state legislation is making reporting on pipeline protests a felony



Freelance journalist Karen Savage is arrested by sheriff's deputies while covering anti-pipeline protests in Louisiana, on September 18, 2018.

When tens of thousands of activists streamed onto the Standing Rock indigenous reservation near the Missouri River in defense of indigenous land sovereignty and water rights, journalists were there to document it. At least nine reporters or filmmakers were injured or arrested by police or pipeline security guards while covering the protest, and over a year later, the stakes for journalists covering pipeline protests are even higher.

Karen Savage is a freelance reporter who has been covering the L’eau Est La Vie camp, an environmental protest group which is resisting the construction of an oil pipeline in the Atchafalaya Basin of southern Louisiana. Her work, which has been published in outlets like The Appeal, has exposed the cozy relationship between law enforcement and pipeline construction companies—even detailing that some police officers work second jobs as pipeline security guards.

In the course of her reporting, Savage has been arrested twice by officers with the St. Martin’s Sheriff's Department. In one instance, she was arrested for “unauthorized of entry of a critical infrastructure project.” Last year, this would have been a misdemeanor crime. But thanks to a newly minted law in Louisiana, it’s now a felony.

The state’s new law imposes felony charges on anyone who enter pipeline construction sites without permission. It’s similar to model legislation by American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right wing advocacy organization that authors pro-corporate legislation and finds sympathetic legislators to move it forward. ALEC’s members include oil and gas companies.

Louisiana’s version of the “ALEC critical infrastructure bill” went into effect on August 1, 2018—just weeks before Savage’s arrest. Pamela Spees, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who represented groups opposed to the Bayou Bridge project, called Louisiana’s bill “ALEC-plus”, noting that it went beyond ALEC’s model legislation.

Louisiana is far from the only state to adopt laws escalating the criminalization of alleged crimes at supposed “critical infrastructure” sites: similar bills have been introduced in Iowa, Virginia, New York, Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Minnesota, Colorado, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

Not all of these bills have become law, but Rick Blum—Policy Director at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press—is concerned about the implications of these efforts for press freedom.

“Reporters have been shut out from covering protests, such as in Ferguson,” he said. “They tried to close off the airspace from news helicopters—not because of safety concerns—but because they wanted to keep reporters from covering the police response to protests.”

Blum thinks it’s a huge problem when reporters are not granted reasonable access to cover newsworthy events, including on private property. “Whether pipeline constructions or natural gas processing near schools, we should not make it hard for journalists to cover newsworthy events at critical infrastructure sites,” he said.

Karen Savage is one of very few reporters covering the water protectors’ protests in southern Louisiana, and she thinks a lack of media coverage and public attention allows law enforcement and pipeline construction companies to operate without accountability.

The second time she was arrested, she said she was driven around by the police through sugar cane fields for an hour, when the drive to the police station should have taken just 20 minutes. While sheriff’s deputies told her there was a warrant out for her arrest, it’s unclear whether that was the case.

Reporter Karen Savage and the L’eau Est La Vie resistance camp did have permission to be on the land. Savage explains that because the land has been passed on from generation to generation so many times, there are around 700 total property owners, and the company constructing the pipeline must obtain permission from all of them to do so. Some of the owners are actively resisting the pipeline construction, and have written letters granting the camp permission to remain.

But even when protesters and journalists like Karen Savage have permission to be on the contested land, law enforcement are arresting them for what would be felony charges. Although the District Attorney's office hasn’t officially brought charges in Savage’s case, Savage’s attorney said that it can take up to a year for charges to be filed in felony cases when the individual is out on bail. And protesters or journalists do not have to be convicted for the arrests and charges to have a chilling effect.

“It was a very clear intimidation tactic to stop me from covering this story,” Savage said about her arrests.

From Standing Rock in North Dakota to the Atchafalaya Basin, people are rising up in defense of indigenous land and water rights. Press coverage of these protests has exposed the close relationships between oil and gas companies and police, and unconscionable treatment of protesters by law enforcement. The ability of the press to cover pipeline protests is critical, and legislation that escalates penalties for people who “trespass” on critical infrastructure projects is dangerous for political protest and press freedom.

Donate to support press freedom

Your support is more important than ever.