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Amid a media blackout of the Standing Rock protests, law enforcement targets the rare journalists on the scene

Published: November 27, 2016
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Source: Boing Boing

Unicorn Riot is a media collective that formed in response to the lack of media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tar Sands Blockade; their news comes direct from the front lines of some of the most significant and under-reported conflicts in the world, in the form of unedited livestreams from the conflict zone, and edited highlight reels after the fact.

Unicorn Riot's reporters are among the most targeted by Morton County Sheriff's Deputies -- the same law enforcement officers whom Unicorn Riot have outed for the sadistic use of water-canons in subzero temperatures and of firing tear gas cannisters directly into the protesters' crowds, activities the deputies lied about when they denied doing either.

The Morton County cops say that because Unicorn Riot has a point of view, they are protesters, not reporters (this is the same argument they used when they fabricated charges against Democracy Now's Amy Goodman in October). This is wrong on its face: protesting is a thing you do, not a thing you believe. As Unicorn Riot's Lorenzo Serna says, "I'm not participating. I'm not building the barricade. I'm not pushing off against the police. I’m not going to pray at the water ceremony. I'm literally there observing."

Discriminatory policing against journalists based on their political beliefs raises significant First Amendment questions, and they will only get more grave: the rise of crowdfunded, independent media; the decline of commercial, traditional news organizations; the practice of blacking out coverage of significant protests; and the coming, press-hostile, human-rights-hostile Trump years will put police and journalists into more conflict than ever.

To make things worse, FEMA has circulated training materials to its officers advising them that "Some protesters will attempt to design fictitious media credentials to gain access to events or special consideration by law enforcement," giving fed law-enforcement a virtual hunting-license to actually target journalists. The US Army Corps of Engineers has also gotten in on the act, declaring an out-of-the-way corner far from the action to be the designated "free speech zone" and ordering protesters to remove themselves to the zone on pain of arrest (though the protesters are occupying treaty land that was never ceded to the US government).

At the Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota, which serves as a base for opposing the pipeline, volunteers distribute press IDs that give journalists permission to take photos on camp premises, after they attend an orientation. When I was at the camp recently, pass distributors suggested putting the passes away during protest actions, saying that pass carriers seemed to become police targets.

Others believe it’s less about targeting and more about police who decline to discriminate between journalists and activists. “I think that as the boundaries between journalists and non-journalists continue to erode, and any definition of journalism becomes more elusive, journalists have to realize that their rights are not protected by the special realm of press freedom,” said Carlos Lauría, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ program director for the Americas. Instead, he said, reporters should seek protection by “guaranteeing that the rights of free expression are extended to all.”

As of November 14, according to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, 473 people had been arrested attempting to stand in the oil pipeline’s way. Freelance reporters, documentary filmmakers, producers of movement-building media, and independent activists armed with a cell phone have all been swept up in mass arrests that have been carried out almost weekly since October.

Sara Lafleur-Vetter, a filmmaker who has been covering the pipeline fight since August, was charged on October 22 with trespassing and engaging in a riot in one of the largest mass arrests, when 127 were detained. Her camera was confiscated and eventually returned without its memory cards, and she said her bail agreement stipulated that she should not have any direct or indirect contact with Dakota Access pipeline property. “I can still go out,” she said. “I just have to be really careful.”

ARRESTS OF JOURNALISTS AT STANDING ROCK TEST THE BOUNDARIES OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT [Aileen Brown/The Intercept]

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