Two journalists are facing jail time for covering protests against oil and gas pipelines in North Dakota.
The better-known of the pair, Amy Goodman, host of the television and radio program Democracy Now!, will appear in court today to face charges that she participated in a riot while covering Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests last month. The protests, attended by thousands, are being led by Native American groups and environmental activists. While Goodman and her crew were filming, private security guards pepper sprayed and unleashed dogs to attack protestors. Goodman’s report went viral; one Facebook posting of the video has 14 million views. Five days after that report was recorded, a warrant was issued for Goodman’s arrest.
Initially, she was charged with trespassing, but that count was dropped by North Dakota state prosecutors, who admitted it likely would not stand up in court. They then charged Goodman with participating in a riot. If convicted, she could be fined and serve jail time. Her appearance is set for 1:30 Central Time in Morton County court.
“I came back to North Dakota to fight a trespass charge. They saw that they could never make that charge stick, so now they want to charge me with rioting,” Goodman in a statement posted to Democracy Now!’s website on Saturday. “I wasn’t trespassing, I wasn’t engaging in a riot, I was doing my job as a journalist by covering a violent attack on Native American protesters.”
Goodman was one of the first journalists with a national audience to cover the pipeline protest, which would carry oil from North Dakota’s fuel-rich Bakken Shale to Illinois, a journey of more than 1,000 miles that crosses the Missouri River, a source of water to Native American tribes as well as millions of others.
Less than a week after her report aired, the Obama administration ordered a halt to construction on the disputed stretch of DAPL to allow for more environmental assessments. The decision comes as falling oil prices threaten a boom that fracking brought to the Bakken region of North Dakota.
The charges against Goodman have been denounced by press freedom advocates. “How North Dakota did not immediately realize this was all a horrible mistake on their part is beyond reason. The only explanation seems to be that they want to silence First Amendment-protected speech and intimidate other journalists into not covering the protests,” writes Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press foundation, in a blog post.
Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the North Dakota courts to dismiss the charges against Goodman. “Failure to do so would send a chilling message for press freedom in the US,” he said. Delphine Halgand, US director of Reporters Without Borders, called the charges against Goodman, “a direct threat against press freedom.”
But Goodman is not the only journalist to face charges for filming protests against the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure.
Just last week, Deia Schlosberg, a producer on the film How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, was arrested and charged with three felonies, all conspiracy charges, that carry a sentence of up to 45 years in prison. The charges stemmed from Schlosberg’s filming of an Oct. 11 protest that briefly shut down five oil pipelines that bring about 15 percent of the oil used each day to America from Canada’s tar sands.
The director of Schlosberg’s film, Josh Fox (famous for his 2010 film Gasland and a sequel to it), is circulating a petition asking the state to drop the charges against her. Along with 20,000 others, actors Mark Ruffalo and Daryl Hannah, musician Neil Young and environmental activist Bill McKibben have signed it.
This reporter is being prosecuted for covering the North Dakota oil protests. For reference, I face a mere 30 years. https://t.co/GzMbwCVV40
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 14, 2016
In both cases, prosecutors are arguing that the reporters were not acting as journalists but were instead part of the demonstrations, and guilty of the same criminal charges levied against protestors.
“She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions,” Prosecutor Ladd Erickson told The Bismark Tribune in an article about the charges against Goodman. Ironically, in a letter responding to another lawyer concerned about the case, Erickson mentioned that one of his favorite reporters is Matt Taibbi, a journalist for Rolling Stone who is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.
Upon reading this, Taibbi wrote:
…A prosecutor who arrests a reporter because he doesn’t think she’s “balanced” enough is basically telling future reporters what needs to be in their stories to avoid arrest. This is totally improper and un-American. We have enough meddling editors in this country without also recruiting government officials to the job.
We’ll be following this story as it develops. Stay tuned.