Was BP Actively Restricting Media Access to the Oil Spill?
The following article is provided by UNC’s Powering A Nation journalism team.
BP required workers employed in the Vessels of Opportunity program and other programs to sign a contract. The Vessels of Opportunity contract put fishermen at risk of losing their job, which is their only form of income, if they speak with the media.
The contract included a clause prohibiting them and their deckhands from making “news releases, marketing presentation, or any other public statements” while working on the clean-up. It also included an additional section titled “Agreement Regarding Proprietary and Confidential Information,” which states that workers cannot disclose “Data” gathered while on the job, including “plans,” “reports,” “information” and “etc.”
We were able to obtain a copy of the contract from an anonymous source. Below are the clauses pertaining to media relations.
On May 24, some received a notice indicating that Article 22 and paragraph five of Exhibit C were deleted from the original contract. Still, many are confused and concerned with their job security if they speak with media members. Below is a copy of the first page of this letter, also obtained from an anonymous source.
Media outlets have also reported being forced off of oiled beaches and restricted from staging areas by the oil company. Some fishermen we have spoken with say they were told explicitly by their supervisors that they were not allowed to tell anyone what they see while out on the job.
One loophole we’ve found in gaining access is with the fishermen’s wives. Many of them see what their husbands, their families, and their community are going through, and they are willing to speak out.
“I don’t care – I didn’t sign a contract,” said Cherie Pete, who owns Maw’s Sandwich & Snack Shop and has lived in Venice all her life. This is a sentiment shared by many wives we’ve spoken to. Her husband, a lifelong shrimper and boat builder, is now working with Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries as a contractor paid by BP.
Some fishermen are worried to let us document their lives at home, outside of their employment with BP, for fear of being fired from the only work they can do right now. Ultimately, BP is not directly limiting media contact, but the contract added more uncertainty on top of what the fishermen are already experiencing.