September 27, 2010

The National Press Photographers’ Association is protesting a Transportation Security Administration poster and counter card depicting a photographer as a terrorist. The poster shows someone in a dark hooded sweatshirt pointing a large camera at a small jet, with the warning, “Don’t let our planes get into the wrong hands.”

NPPA has asked TSA to remove the poster and cards from airports. An agency spokesman said the agency already plans to do that as it phases in a new public-awareness campaign against terrorism.

NPPA General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher contends that the poster is the latest example of the government questioning photographers and stifling free speech under the pretext of security and safety.

“I just find it absurd to have limits on people taking pictures. It’s a protected, free speech activity,” Osterreicher said in a phone interview. “It’s really unfortunate that under circumstances such as post-9/11, what suffers are a lot of First Amendment issues.”

Poster equates photographers with terrorists?

In a letter asking Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to remove the posters and counter cards, Osterreicher said he understands that TSA wants to encourage people to report suspicious activity — but it’s wrong to equate photographers with terrorists. Too often, he said, photographers are scrutinized when there’s no reasonable cause to be suspicious of their activity.

TSA spokesman Sterling Payne explained in an e-mail that the poster has been part of a general aviation program, “GA Secure,” which launched several years ago.

“These images are simply meant to represent a number of different scenarios that are common in and around GA airfields,” Payne said. “In fact, many photographers would be prime candidates to use vigilance programs to report suspicious activity since they’re extremely observant of their surroundings.”

On July 1, Payne said, TSA and DHS launched a new campaign, “If You See Something, Say Something,”  for general aviation. As that campaign is phased in, new artwork will soon replace those associated with the GA Secure campaign.

The new campaign features three different posters, none of which depicts photographers.

Anti-terrorism efforts inhibiting photojournalism

Ideally, Osterreicher said, he wants to work with the Department of Homeland Security and TSA to develop more reasonable policies and practices and to ensure that the GA Secure artwork doesn’t show up in other government works.

Last year NPPA President Bob Carey wrote a letter to Napolitano after she appeared on Fox News and asked citizens to report “if they see, for example, someone continually taking photographs of a piece of critical infrastructure that doesn’t seem to make any sense.” Osterreicher, who has worked on a lot of cases involving photographers’ First Amendment rights, said the NPPA didn’t receive a response.

His efforts to contact officials haven’t all been in vain. About a year ago he contacted Amtrak after learning that photographers were being told not to take photos on Amtrak property. Amtrak gave Osterreicher a copy of the company’s guidelines regarding photography and agreed to let him revise them. The guidelines, which have since been posted online, now state that news photography and video are permitted on Amtrak property. (In some cases, journalists must obtain permission from Amtrak’s media relations office.)

In a similar situation, Osterreicher said, photographers were being told they couldn’t take photos on the Miami-Dade County transit system. Osterreicher obtained a copy of the transit system’s guidelines, which stated that photographers only need a permit for commercial photography.

“Hopefully they’ll be training their officers now,” Osterreicher said. “A lot of this has to do with public education.”

Security measures involving photographers have only worsened in recent years, Osterreicher said, noting that he hears about incidents almost daily. Various websites have picked up on the problem, including the UK satirical site, which ran a related parody titled, “Terrorists Sick of Being Treated Like Photographers.”

In June, Gizmodo ran a provocative piece, “Are Cameras the New Guns?” about citizens being arrested for videotaping or photographing police in action. The article explained that it’s now illegal in some states to record an on-duty police officer. In other states, such recordings are legal only if all parties have consented or if it’s clear that a recording is underway.

Osterreicher said these laws send the message that photographers don’t care about safety and security and that people should be wary of photographers.

What should photographers do when confronted by law enforcement?

He suggested that if photographers are confronted by the government or law enforcement agents while taking photos, they should calmly explain what they’re doing and be cooperative. If that doesn’t work and the photographers really have to stay in that area to take a photo for a story, they should ask to speak to a public information officer or a supervisor and explain what they want to do and what happened.

“You shouldn’t be loud or disruptive because that’s only going to get you arrested,” Osterreicher said. “I think it’s really just a matter of asserting your rights and educating the public and law enforcement about free speech activities.”

Lance Rosenfield learned this when he was briefly detained by Texas City, Texas, police while taking photos of an oil refinery for ProPublica. Rosenfield said he was confronted and then “harassed” by a local police officer, a BP security officer and someone who identified himself as a Department of Homeland Security agent.

“I know I was photographing near a refinery, and refineries are in fact sensitive areas, so I don’t mind being questioned, but I do mind being harassed,” Rosenfield said by phone. “They insisted on seeing my pictures, and that crossed the line for me. They made it seem as though I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I was treated as one hair short of being a terrorist.”

Rosenfield, who was on deadline, ended up showing the officers his photographs. If he hadn’t been on deadline, he said, he would have refused to show them without a warrant. Shortly after the incident, he visited Flickr, typed in “refinery” and found thousands of images of refineries.

“You can go to Google Earth and see more detail than I could ever take with a camera from the perimeter,” Rosenfield said. “That’s the irony of the whole thing — that the police are willing to forsake First Amendment rights for something that’s already so easily accessible.”

Spacer Spacer

As for the TSA poster, Rosenfield said it adds to photojournalists’ uphill battle for freedom of speech.

“It’s maddening when we’re just immediately criminalized for doing our jobs as journalists,” he said. “We have to talk our way out of being criminals or potential threats and it just seems a little ridiculous. Photography is not a crime.”

The home page image for this story was used under a Creative Commons license.

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