Arrests at Dakota Access Pipeline Challenge Boundaries of Journalism and Activism

Five days after she posted a Facebook video of police officers using aggressive force against protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman was arrested and charged with “participating in a riot.” According to a PBS report, the coverage Goodman was arrested for showed security guards at the Pipeline that “pepper sprayed and unleashed guard dogs to attack protesters.” The video has since garnered over 14 million views.

The charges against Goodman for simply reporting on the events as they unfolded pose an ever-complicating question: where does the line between journalism and activism lie?

In recent months, reporters like Goodman have been flocking to North Dakota to cover protests over the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline and the sometimes violent opposition protesters face. Though Goodman was charged for her coverage in September, the protests have persisted as a result of ongoing construction in spite of President Obama’s calls to “reroute” the pipeline.

Now, journalists covering the conflict at the scene are facing a scary trend of arrests and charges. While the original protest against the Pipeline was peaceful, the situation has since changed. Journalists are facing riot zones that have seen their fair share of violence instigated by both sides of the conflict.

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Goodman is not the only journalist to have been arrested and charged because of Pipeline coverage. Filmmaker Deia Schlosberg was arrested for filming a protest at the scene, and could face up to 45 years in prison. Schlosberg was charged with three counts of felony conspiracy, and law enforcement confiscated the footage she recorded. Four journalists from the independent media outlet Unicorn Riot have also been arrested for their coverage, and over 140 other protesters and independent journalists have been arrested at the site.

Journalists swept up in activism and protests is not a new phenomenon, but the arrests at the Dakota Access Pipeline are far greater than usual. In comparison, only a dozen journalists were arrested for reporting on the Ferguson, Missouri Black Lives Matter protests, and two journalists were briefly detained after covering the Black Lives Matter protests in Rochester this past summer.

To put it in an even greater perspective, only 13 journalists were arrested during a state-led journalism crack down during this summer’s coup d’etat in Turkey. Additionally, journalists detained at the Pipeline are being charged in greater numbers and for greater crimes including rioting and C-class felonies.

In by no means legitimizing the seriousness and missions of other protests, the gap between the journalism arrests at the Dakota Access Pipeline and those at other protests is staggering.

Yet, it is important to note that the increased arrests may be the product of blurred lines, perceived or intentional, between journalism and activism as enacted by individual reporters. The prosecutor for Goodman’s case, Ladd Erickson, repeatedly referred to Goodman as a “protester, basically.” He repeatedly insisted that he had reasonable belief that Goodman’s reporting had undertones of activism and that she had a hidden agenda while in North Dakota, after Erickson unsuccessfully tried her for trespassing. Both Goodman and filmmaker Schlosberg have countered that they were simply just “doing their job” at the time of the arrests, and had no intention of joining the protestors.

The defense attorneys of the arrested journalists have argued that police are “stifling free speech” and “using excessive force” against both protesters and journalists in ways never before seen. As violence escalates and even more attention is drawn to the Pipeline, it is likely that even more journalists will be caught in the crosshairs. Even notable individuals have begun weighing in on the line between activism and journalism in this situation – notorious NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted an article discussing Goodman’s arrest and her potential 45-year sentence noting, “This reporter is being prosecuted for covering the North Dakota oil protests. For reference, I face a mere 30 years.”

As the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline intensify and arrests begin to climb, it is possible that conflict between the media and law enforcement could grow. Yet, it is also a challenge that independent media has not shied away from – a charge to ramp up attention on the Pipeline protests with the hopes that bigger names in media, and ultimately, the public, will follow suit.

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