MORTON COUNTY - At least seven journalists have been charged with crimes while covering Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota, prompting some out-of-state and independent journalists to say law enforcement is targeting them.
The arrests include a freelance journalist who is charged with a felony of conspiring to set fire to roadblocks and vehicles, but he says he was reporting on the confrontation with law enforcement, not participating in it.
“It’s ridiculous the way they’ve been targeting media,” said Adam Schrader, a freelance journalist from New York.
Some journalists have had equipment confiscated by law enforcement that was either not returned or delayed in getting returned.
Photojournalist Sara Lafleur-Vetter, who has provided video coverage for The Guardian, was arrested on Oct. 22 while documenting protest activities. She eventually got her camera back after The Guardian warned Morton County of possible legal repercussions, but her memory cards were not returned.
“This is a violation of the freedom of the press. We have a right to report on what’s happening,” said Lafleur-Vetter, charged with misdemeanor trespass and engaging in a riot. “If we don’t have that right, we don’t live in a democracy anymore.”
Three journalists for the alternative media site Unicorn Riot have been arrested in North Dakota since September, including Lorenzo Serna, a Grand Forks native who didn’t get his $2,000 camera back until nine days after his arrest, hindering his ability to report.
“Regardless of how you feel about the protest, whatever side you’re on, this is a historic event,” said Serna, a University of North Dakota graduate. “The public deserves to know how it happens and how it goes down. Anything that hinders that is wrong.”
Many of the pipeline protest activities have occurred in construction zones that are on private property.
Serna, also arrested Oct. 22 and charged with criminal trespass and engaging in a riot, said his goal was to document what occurred and the law enforcement response.
“I almost said nothing throughout the whole event,” Serna said. “I was there observing what was happening.”
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said he did not know details about the arrests or have information about the circumstances leading up to the arrests.
“If a reporter is doing illegal activities while covering protests, they’re subject to arrest,” he said.
Lt. Tom Iverson, spokesman for the North Dakota Highway Patrol, said law enforcement is not treating out-of-state media differently. He said officers have given multiple warnings for people to leave private property.
“When people continue to refuse to get off of private property, to include some media representatives, then of course we have to take action and uphold the law,” Iverson said.
Ladd Erickson, McLean County state’s attorney who is assisting Morton County, said many of those arrested are claiming they were journalists, including people with cell phones who record videos for social media.
“You don’t want prosecutors deciding what is and what isn’t a journalist,” Erickson said. “I don’t know where those lines are ultimately drawn.”
Kirchmeier said arrestees should get their property back, but it’s possible some has been delayed due to the volume of processing some of the mass arrests.
Jack McDonald, attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said he questions the arrests of journalists.
“The basic fact of the law is the reporters have no greater rights than anybody else regarding lawful entry and trespass and things like that,” McDonald said. “On the other hand, the reporters have a job and a duty to try to cover current events or what’s happening. At times, this may take them into areas that would ordinarily be off-limits.”
Schrader, arrested during the Oct. 27 mass arrest when hundreds of militarized law enforcement officers removed people from the highway and property owned by the pipeline company, is facing the most serious penalties among those journalists arrested during Dakota Access protests.
At the time he was arrested, Schrader said he was at the front lines with an audio recorder in hand asking officers who had given the order to use pepper spray on people.
An officer told Schrader to back up, but Schrader said the officer didn’t give him the opportunity to do so before arresting him, even as he was identifying himself as a journalist.
After he got released from jail on $1,500 bond, Schrader paid $840 to get his car that had been towed out of impound. An audio recorder and a spiral notebook were missing from his vehicle, and the towing company said they didn’t take his belongings, Schrader said.
“It made it so I couldn't do my job,” he said.
Kirchmeier said law enforcement did not go through vehicles that were towed. He said there are other possible explanations for the missing property, including maybe the car was accidentally left unlocked.
McDonald said it appears that law enforcement is not recognizing journalists who are independent or work for less-traditional news outlets.
“I think in this day and age, they’re as much a journalist as anybody else,” McDonald said. “They’re just reporting on a different medium.”
Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said journalists who are truly caught in the middle when reporting on a protest have a good chance of getting those charged dismissed.
“They tend to, and I’m not saying they should, they tend to round you up and sort you out later,” said Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Dalglish encourages her students to wear their credentials identifying them as journalists if they’re in a situation where arrests are being made.
“If you work for some kind of recognized news operation, you stand a better chance of being left alone,” she said.