For months, environmental protesters have clashed with police and private security companies over plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that opponents say will destroy Native American sites and affect the region’s water supply. While mainstream media have covered flashpoints in the protests, a core of mostly freelance, left-wing, and Native American outlets have remained at the site to provide daily coverage.
Several of those journalists are facing charges, including trespass and engaging in riots, after being caught in mass arrests as police cracked down on protests or tried to clear camps in recent months. CPJ is aware of at least 10 journalists covering the story who are facing charges. Details of their cases can be seen here.
Some of those facing charges told CPJ that police used heavy-handed tactics, ignored or dismissed their press credentials, or arrested them even though they were following dispersal orders or commands to stay behind police lines. The journalists said that the burden of legal costs or risk of further charges if they are arrested again has discouraged them from covering other protests.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department told CPJ that it respects the “important role journalists play in our democracy and in the coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest.” The department did not respond to specific requests for comment on the allegations made by journalists including claims of heavy handed tactics, or press credentials being ignored.
Jenni Monet, a freelancer who has been reporting on the pipeline protests for several months, was charged with criminal trespass and engaging in a riot. She was arrested February 1 while covering the dismantling of an encampment known as Last Child Camp. Monet said that she had expected the assignment to be like any other reporting trip, but when the police surrounded the camp, she got a bad feeling and texted a colleague “Heads up. Might get arrested. Big raid about to go down and I’m trapped.”
Monet, who contributes to outlets including Yes! Magazine and the PBS NewsHour website, wrote about her experiences in an article for the Oneida Nation owned Indian Country Media Network. In the piece, she said that despite showing police her media pass and walking away when instructed to do so, she was arrested, strip searched, and held in jail for 25 hours before being charged.
Jihan Hafiz, an award-winning Egyptian-Samoan journalist who also faces charges, told CPJ that she thought reporting in North Dakota would be “a walk in the park.” Hafiz, who has covered conflict in the Middle East and police brutality in Brazil for outlets including The Real News Network and Al-Jazeera America, said she was surprised by what she described as heavy-handed police tactics and compared covering Standing Rock to reporting on conflict overseas. “These are not American tactics of policing. It’s clear to me that covering this is dangerous,” she told CPJ.
Journalists don’t have any special privileges when it comes to trespassing, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP). Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director at the committee, said, “Prosecutors and judges should recognize that the public is best served by allowing reporters to document the scene. If protesters are engaging in criminal acts, the public should know. Likewise, if government agents are overreacting or committing civil rights violations, the public needs to know that too.”
Leslie added that there are times when a journalist will go on private land to chase a story. “Any criminal trespass law should require an intent to do something illegal; covering a news story shouldn’t suffice to establish that intent,” he said in an email. “Courts don’t often see it this way, and figure trespass is trespass. But it’s inevitable that some very public, newsworthy stories–like officers arresting protesters–will occur on private land, and there’s a significant public interest in allowing journalists to cover those events.”
Hafiz, who published an account and video footage of the mass arrests on October 22 in The Intercept, said she told officers she was a journalist and pleaded with them not to arrest her. “We were subjected to strip searches, which is humiliating. People who looked native or were not white were targeted and told to spread body parts or jump up and down,” Hafiz told CPJ.
Monet, who is Native American, also told CPJ that she was subjected to a strip search but said that when she talked to white women booked at the same time they told her they had been allowed to keep their bras on during the search.
The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment about these claims.
Hafiz told CPJ that authorities informed her that if she was arrested for the same offense she could be held in jail until her June court date. “I still get close to direct actions but I’m scared. To be in jail and have the control of your life in someone else’s hands is scary. I still try to be as close as possible, to be distant and film something means nothing,” Hafiz said. She added that on at least one occasion, a protest at a Wells Fargo, she left for fear of being swept up in arrests, even though she wanted to document what was happening.
Two other journalists, Sara Lafleur-Vetter, whose coverage of Standing Rock featured as a mini documentary in The Guardian, and Lorenzo Serna, a journalist with the nonprofit media group Unicorn Riot, were arrested the same day as Hafiz. Both Lafleur-Vetter and Serna told CPJ that they identified themselves as journalists at the time of the arrest.
Lafleur-Vetter, who was filming for part of a feature-length documentary about three Standing Rock protesters, told CPJ that police temporarily seized her camera equipment.
Rob Keller, a public information officer for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, told CPJ in an emailed statement, “When journalists are covering an incident they need to provide credentials to law enforcement when asked. If asked by law enforcement to leave an area that is private property they need to do so to avoid committing criminal trespass. If they don’t leave after repeated requests by law enforcement to do so, they are subject to being arrested for committing criminal trespass, regardless of their credentials as a journalist.”
Nearly all of the journalists facing charges are freelance or from smaller, independent outlets such as Unicorn Riot, a volunteer media collective started in 2015. Many said that this has made it harder for them to fight the charges.
“Dealing with the possibility of going to jail for 60 days, the constant canceling and rescheduling of trial dates creates a financial burden because you buy tickets. A lot of us are freelancers. We don’t have the safety net of companies vouching for us or paying our attorney fees,” Hafiz said
Niko Georgiades, a reporter for Unicorn Riot, said, “I’m worried about the fines. I don’t have $1,000 for a fine,” He said he was arrested alongside Chris Schiano, also from Unicorn Riot, in North Dakota on September 13 after they filmed protesters locking themselves to construction equipment. Georgiades said that he stayed behind the police line as per instructions but was still arrested.
Unicorn Riot has been covering the protests since April last year and, according The Intercept, its journalists, who often livestream events from the protest site, are often mistaken for activists. The three Unicorn Riot journalists with whom CPJ spoke said that they were arrested despite attempting to follow police orders. Georgiades told CPJ that he used to be an activist but had made a conscious decision to switch to reporting. “If I was participating I wouldn’t have a camera and wouldn’t be asking people what was happening … If we embed in the camps, it doesn’t mean we aren’t journalists. When ABC embeds [in the military] it doesn’t make them soldiers,” he said.
While most of the journalists face class B misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing or engaging in a riot, a few face more serious charges. Myron Dewey, a Native American journalist who runs Digital Smoke Signals, a website that includes news, videos, and forums, faces a class A misdemeanor charge of stalking for allegedly using a drone. If convicted, Dewey could face up to a year imprisonment and $2,000 fine. Other journalists with whom CPJ spoke said that Dewey’s footage and cultural perspective had been invaluable in understanding the protests.
Court hearings for two of the 10 journalists are scheduled for the first week in March. In separate cases CPJ documented last year of reporters arrested covering environmental protests in the U.S.–including Democracy Now! reporter Amy Goodman–charges were later dropped or suspended.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The fifteenth paragraph of this blog has been updated to reflect the circumstances of the journalist’s arrest. The post and sidebar have been updated to clarify the maximum penalty for the charges.