MORTON COUNTY, N.D. – 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.