On October 11, journalist and documentary filmmaker, Deia Schlosberg, was arrested while filming, in her professional capacity, a protest in solidarity with the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Rather than recognizing the right of journalists to document First Amendment activity, the prosecutor charged Schlosberg with three felonies: conspiracy to theft of property, conspiracy to theft of services and conspiracy to tampering with or damaging a public service. If convicted of all charges, the journalist could be sentenced to 45 years in prison.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is a controversial oil pipeline that has come under fierce resistance in North Dakota, where it is slated to cross indigenous land recognized as sovereign in treaties with the U.S. government. Protesters say the pipeline would destroy sacred sites and threaten water supplies across the Midwest.
Government protecting fossil fuel interests
Schlosberg was arrested while filming a protest in Walhalla, North Dakota, where activists shut down a tar sands pipeline in solidarity with the Dakota Access struggle. Police confiscated her footage and held her for a full 48 hours before filing charges.
In a recent statement, Schlosberg noted how the mainstream media has consistently failed to give due attention to struggles against fossil fuel infrastructure.
“The mainstream did not break the story on fracking nor did it break the story about what is happening at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota,” she said.
“Accordingly, I felt I had a duty to document the unprecedented #ShutItDown climate action, which stopped all Canadian oil sands from entering the United States. Canadian oil sands importation is a controversial issue that is not getting the coverage it warrants, especially considering that the extraction and use of oil sands has a profound impact on every person on this planet.”
Observers immediately condemned the felony charges as unconstitutional and politically motivated.
“They have in my view violated the First Amendment,” said Josh Fox, producer of the film Gasland.
“They threw the book at Deia for being a journalist.”
NSA surveillance whistleblower, Edward Snowden, pointed out that the charges he faces for leaking government documents carry a maximum sentence of 30 years, compared with the 45 faced by Schlosberg for filming a protest.
A group of celebrities including Neil Young, Mark Ruffalo and Daryl Hannah have signed a letter calling on President Obama and North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple to intervene on Schlosberg’s behalf, calling the charges against her “unfair, unjust, and illegal.”
Attack on the First Amendment
In an op-ed in The Nation, Fox notes that Schlosberg’s case is just part of a larger war on journalists who dare challenge the fossil fuel industry.
“The arrest of journalists, filmmakers, and others witnessing and reporting on citizen protests against fossil-fuel infrastructure … is part of a worrisome and growing pattern,” he wrote.
Recently, actress Shailene Woodley was arrested simply for live-streaming a prayer event taking place at the Dakota Access construction site.
“She was singled out, the police told her, because she was well-known and had 40,000 people watching live on her Facebook page,” Fox wrote. “Other filmmakers shooting protest actions along the pipeline have also been arrested.”
Another case that sparked widespread outrage was that of Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, who had a warrant issued for her arrest after she broadcast footage of private Dakota Access security guards loosing attack dogs on nonviolent protesters. The charge was later changed to “participating in a riot.”
“They saw that they could never make that [trespassing] charge stick, so now they want to charge me with rioting,” said Goodman. “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.”
The charges were eventually dropped. But according to Reporters Without Borders, they “never should have been filed in the first place.”
“The First Amendment and the Constitution are at stake,” Fox wrote. “If we lose it, we lose America too.”
Sources for this article include: