Details are still coming in on this one, but Huffington Post and Politico are reporting that Gasland director Josh Fox has been arrested during a House Science Committee hearing on hydraulic fracturing. The hearing was held to discuss water contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming which the EPA has linked to fracking.
Fox and crew were ejected from the hearing under the justification of not having formal Capitol Hill press credentials, something which HuffPo says is rarely enforced when high-profile journalists are concerned, and for which temporary accreditation is easily obtained. Capitol Police report that Fox has been charged with unlawful entry.
At the same time an ABC News crew, properly credentialed, was also ejected from the hearing, though no arrests were made.
Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) called a for a motion to allow both film crews to remain and document the proceedings, which is open to the public, but this was denied by Republicans in the room.
"If Republicans had objected on procedural grounds," Zach Carter writes, "the could have simply sent the crew to the front desk, rather than ordering police to arrest journalists. The right to a free press is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Documentary crews are almost never denied access to public meetings of elected government officials."
Remember: US Has Dropped 27 Places on International Press Freedom List
To put all of this in some context, remember that in Reporters Without Borders' 2011 press freedom index the United States has fallen twenty seven places in the past year. It now sits at spot 47, tied with Argentina and Romania. The arrests and intimidation of journalists trying to cover Occupy Wall Street were cited as the reason for the decline.
Covering the news in the US certainly won't get you killed or arrested as quickly as it will in Mexico covering narco-trafficking, in Syria, Bahrain, or Yemen, in outright war zones. But as cameras proliferate and the boundaries between who is considered a journalist and who isn't further blur, the uneasiness of those in power, the uneasiness of power itself in all its precariousness, is increasingly apparent.
It may be tempting to think that there was something to hide in these supposedly public fracking hearings, and that's why Fox and ABC News were ejected. Indeed, the fracking industry would like nothing more to keep a thick veil over their activities, certainly over the exact chemicals they use in the process, and even more certainly when the question of potential aquifer contamination is being discussed.
But my suspicion is that the arrest of Fox is not part of some conspiracy to continue to keep the public in the dark about fracking. It is far more banal than that. It is really just thuggery by members of Congress who feel threatened, who don't feel comfortable with transparency, who simply don't like the notion of accountability, and use their authority to harass journalists and documentarians, simply because they can.
UPDATE: Statement From Josh Fox
Post-arrest Josh Fox sent the following statement to the media:
I was arrested today for exercising my First Amendment rights to freedom of the press on Capitol Hill. I was not expecting to be arrested for practicing journalism. Today's hearing in the House Energy and Environment subcommittee was called to examine EPAs findings that hydraulic fracturing fluids had contaminated groundwater in the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. I have a long history with the town of Pavillion and its residents who have maintained since 2008 that fracking has contaminated their water supply. I featured the stories of residents John Fenton, Louis Meeks and Jeff Locker in GASLAND and I have continued to document the catastrophic water contamination in Pavillion for the upcoming sequel GASLAND 2. It would seem that the Republican leadership was using this hearing to attack the three year Region 8 EPA investigation involving hundreds of samples and extensive water testing which ruled that Pavillion's groundwater was a health hazard, contaminated by benzene at 50x the safe level and numerous other contaminants associated with gas drilling. Most importantly, EPA stated in this case that fracking was the likely cause.
As a filmmaker and journalist I have covered hundreds of public hearings, including Congressional hearings. It is my understanding that public speech is allowed to be filmed. Congress should be no exception. No one on Capitol Hill should regard themselves exempt from the Constitution. The First Amendment to the Constitution states explicitly "Congress shall make no law...that infringes on the Freedom of the Press". Which means that no subcommittee rule or regulation should prohibit a respectful journalist or citizen from recording a public hearing.
This was an act of civil disobedience, yes done in an impromptu fashion, but at the moment when they told me to turn off the cameras, I could not. I know my rights and I felt it was imperative to exercise them.
When I was led out of the hearing room in handcuffs, John Boehner's pledge of transparency in congress was taken out with me.
The people of Pavillion deserve better. The thousands across the US who have documented cases of water contamination in fracking areas deserve their own hearing on Capitol hill. They deserve the chance to testify in before Congress. The truth that fracking contaminates groundwater is out, and no amount of intimidation tactics --either outright challenges to science or the arrest of journalists --will put the genie back in the bottle. Such a brazen attempt to discredit and silence the EPA, the citizens of Pavillion and documentary filmmaking will ultimately fail and it is an affront to the health and integrity of Americans.
Lastly, in defense of my profession, I will state that many many Americans get their news from independent documentaries. The hill should immediately move to make hearings and meetings accessible to independent journalists and not further obstruct the truth from being reported in the vivid and in depth manner that is only achievable through long form documentary filmmaking.
I will be thinking on this event further and will post further thoughts and developments.
I have been charged with "unlawful entry" and my court date is February 15.