Hat tip to former MauiTime contributor/current Big Island Press Club VP Denise Laitinen for tipping us off to Senate Bill 533. The bill, which is currently in the hands of the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, seeks to provide “duly authorized” members of the media access to areas closed by emergency personnel during disasters. It’s under heavy assault from law enforcement and emergency management agencies statewide.
Here’s the relevant portion of the bill that’s causing so much trouble:
“Nothing in this section shall prevent a duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, radio station, television station, or online news distribution network, under the supervision of emergency management agency personnel, from entering an area closed pursuant to this section; provided that the State and counties shall not be held liable for any injury or damage to person or property arising from the entering of the area. News media shall be given all reasonable access and assistance in accessing the area closed pursuant to this section. When full access cannot be reasonably granted, a pool writer, pool photographer, and pool videographer shall be designated to gather and disseminate information.”
The bill came about to prevent the kinds of harsh restrictions imposed on reporters trying to cover the recent lava flows on the Big Island from happening when other disasters strike.
“When the lava crossed Apaa Street in Pahoa, the media were not allowed to interview or photograph the residents who lived nearby and to tell their stories,” Stirling Morita, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Hawaii Chapter, wrote in his Feb. 5 testimony on SB 533. “The media were also shunted from Kaohe Homesteads. In both cases, lava did not impact any structures. The media were also not allowed to get photographs or interview the resident whose house was burnt down by the lava flow. This caused deadline pressures for many to get the story out.”
Sherry Bracken, a radio reporter who covers the Big Island for Hawaii Public Radio, agreed, and submitted her own written comment in favor of the bill. “I support revising Act 111 per this bill to give media reasonable access even in case of emergency,” Bracken said. “Under 111, the State/County can eliminate any independent media coverage of major events, which is not in the public interest. Thanks for your consideration. It is critical for an independent media to be able to report. I have no objection to a pooled arrangement for safety reasons.”
The requirement that this pertain to “duly authorized” media should have comforted law enforcement types, since they’re they one’s who “authorize” local reporters with press passes to cover crime scenes and so forth (the requirements for a pass typically include a criminal background check). But no.
“The purpose of ordering an evacuation is to ensure public safety and welfare by removing people from the path or impacts of a hazard,” said Doug Mayne, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator, in his Feb. 4 testimony against SB 533. “One purpose of establishing a restricted area is to keep non-residents out of an affected area to ensure the security and safety of area residents. Allowing news media free access to these restricted areas could place them in great danger, and could endanger the lives of first responders should the person get into difficulty.”
Click here for SB 533’s status, bill text and testimony.
Photo of 1990 lava flow in Kalapana: USGS/Wikimedia Commons