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Reporters say new Coast Guard rules restrict coverage of oil disaster

Journalists covering the BP oil spill say recently revised government rules hamper their ability to cover the growing disaster.

The Coast Guard established a 65-foot "safety zone" around all boom and response operations in the water and on the beach. Violating the restriction could bring a felony charge and a $40,000 fine.

The Coast Guard says the new rules are meant to protect oil-spill response workers and protect equipment and the environment. Gaining access to a safety zone requires permission by the Coast Guard's captain of the Port of New Orleans.

It wasn't meant to hinder news coverage, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said.

CNN's Anderson Cooper is one of the most prominent and outspoken critics of the restrictions.

When the policy was announced June 30, Cooper told viewers the government was impeding journalists' abilities to document oil-soaked wildlife and incompetence by BP and the government.

"What this means is that oil-soaked birds on an island surrounded by boom … you can't get close enough to take that picture," Cooper said.

"We're not the enemy here," he added.

Cooper contrasted the new restrictions with a previous statement by Thad Allen, the national commander of the spill response. "I have put out a written directive … that says the media will have uninhibited access anywhere we're doing operations," Allen said June 6 on ABC's This Week. "Except for two things, if it's a security or a safety problem."

Allen later told reporters the new rules are not unusual and were used for other "marine events." They were not prompted by a single incident, said Kati Walsh, a Unified Command spokeswoman. Some boom was being vandalized or damaged by boats.

An editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune said the move "mostly protects BP from bad PR."

NBC correspondent Kerry Sanders, who has reported extensively on the oil disaster since May, said reporters and photographers saw distressed wildlife up close in the disaster's early days.

These days, those islands off the Louisiana coast are surrounded by booms that can extend 40 feet, and journalists can't get close without approval from authorities. Reporters are working within the restrictions, he said, and Sanders has not heard of anyone violating the zones.

Still, he likened the rules to "an unnecessary bureaucratic step" that could prevent journalists from quickly following up on tips. In the 24 or 48 hours it takes to have a request approved and an escort arranged, he said, "the oil may move, might sink."

"We don't want the view put through any prism," Sanders said. "We want to see it directly and share it."

Reporters say new Coast Guard rules restrict coverage of oil disaster 07/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 10, 2010 9:11pm]
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