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A Conversation With A Documentarian Facing 45 Years In Prison For Filming Pipeline Protests

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Deia Schlosberg. (Photo courtesy of Deia Schlosberg)

Deia Schlosberg isn't used to being in front of the camera. The 36-year-old documentary filmmaker has spent her career focusing on climate issues, documenting the impacts of hydraulic fracking, wildlife corridors, and, more recently, protests around oil pipelines. But Schlosberg herself was thrust into the center of the story earlier this month when she was arrested on October 11 while filming demonstrators shutting down tar sands pipelines in Wallhala, North Dakota.

Schlosberg was charged with three felony counts, and now faces a combined sentence of 45 years in prison. Amid the national attention focused on the Dakota Access Pipeline, the arrests of journalists like Schlosberg have triggered discussion of First Amendment violations, and a growing threat to freedom of the press. Although the much-publicized "riot" charges against Democracy Now host and executive producer Amy Goodman have since been rejected by a North Dakota judge, Schlosberg still faces a staggeringly long sentence for, essentially, committing journalism. Soon after her arrest, Edward Snowden tweeted in support of Schlosberg and drew a jarring parallel between the sentences they are both facing: he faces a possible sentence of 30 years, which is a third less time than Schlosberg is facing.

We spoke to Schlosberg about her arrest and the charges she faces, covering the climate beat, and what journalists have to fear about the current state of press freedom.

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How have the last few weeks been?

Absolutely insane. It's pretty overwhelming.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your work? What was the story you were working on at the time of your arrest?

For years, I've been telling stories about the people that are on the front lines of climate change, either facing the impacts of climate change or trying to prevent worsening impacts. This was another example of that. I was trying to film the Shut It Down action, which was five activists across four states actually turning the emergency shutoff valve on the five pipelines that are bringing Canadian oil into the U.S. I was filming the turning of the valve on the Keystone pipeline outside of Walhalla, North Dakota. I was there filming from a public road and wasn't part of the action itself. I was just reporting on it. When the police came to arrest the activists, they picked me up and said I was under arrest for being an accomplice.

After I was arrested, they held me in jail for for 53 hours. I didn't really know what was going on. Eventually, they had an arraignment and charged me with the three counts of conspiracy, which is a felony. There's two class A felonies and one class C felony that I was charged with. [My potential sentence] totals 45 years.

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And what was going on during those 53 hours?

I was very confused, but I figured it would clearly be resolved because I was a member of the media and I was doing my job. I knew that I hadn't broken any laws. [Those 53 hours] sucked and it was really hard to have no autonomy and no information and just feel like I had zero control over my life. But eventually, I was able to talk to a lawyer and he figured the charges would be either dropped or significantly reduced and they would pretty much let me go. The arraignment was a real slap in the face.

Was that when you really realized this wasn't just some misunderstanding?

Yes. That's when it got really real.

What's your legal team like? Are there people helping you out? Is there an organized campaign where people can donate to help?

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I have a couple of lawyers working with me. I wasn't the only member of the media arrested who was documenting this protest. There were two others, a filmmaker and a cameraman in Washington state filming the same action. They were also charged with felonies, and they also didn't have anything to do with planning the action. None of us trespassed, it was just filming. They're also facing decades in prison. So there is a legal defense fund to cover any legal funds for me and these other journalists, and actually the activists too. That is at shutitdown.today. There's also a petition on our film website.

Climate journalism as a specialty is a relatively new beat. It seems like even ten years ago someone wouldn't necessarily be making a career out of covering it. Did you transition into it, or was it what you always planned to do?

My undergrad degree is in earth and planetary science, and visual communications. I started college in 1998 and the reason that I went to the school I did and registered in the major I did was because they had a program in environmental sustainability that was focused on the hard science of the environment and climate change. And this was kind of right at the beginning of when people were really talking about it, despite James Hansen's earlier warnings. It's something I've always been interested in, and interested in teaching about and communicating. I've had various other jobs—designer and educator and guide and all these things—but the common thread amongst everything is that I was trying to communicate the science of climate change. The latest incarnation of my career as a documentary filmmaker which started in 2009 was very much with climate in mind and human rights—and bringing more of the social impact of climate change into my work.

It must be incredibly strange to pivot from seeking out and covering these stories to suddenly being the topic of news reports. What's that like?

It's uncomfortable. I like to be behind the camera. I love telling other people's stories. It's frustrating to me that I have to tell my own story at the expense of telling other people's stories. But the reason that I'm happy to do it is because I know that my story is also many other people's stories at the moment. Like the many other journalists that have been arrested and charged for various things as result of doing their jobs. I know I have this crazy weird platform right now, so I do feel a responsibility to speak out on behalf of other people's reporting on climate issues, and on issues surrounding the use of fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure.

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The stories themselves are very scary, in terms of the impacts of climate [change] that we're facing. But hiding those things from the public is even scarier. I think it's critical that we talk about the First Amendment issues that are coming up around these particular topics.

Do you see these particular arrests as part of a growing pattern?

It's hard not to see them as part of a pattern. I don't want to speculate as to the motivations of law enforcement and of the oil and gas companies, but I think it's hard to ignore this trend that's going on.

And this kind of pressure, what do you think it does to the stories that are being told? Does it have a stifling effect?

I would hope that it's actually amplifying [coverage]. Amy Goodman talked about this after her arrest—this idea of 'trickle-up journalism': it's so hard to get these stories into the mainstream media, but then as soon as journalists or someone like Shailene Woodley, who was arrested for live-streaming and essentially doing citizen journalism, as soon as those things happen, that gets covered and then people start to hear about those things that [the journalists] were trying to document. Who knows what will happen in the end, but my hope is that [the arrests] will give more exposure to the stories we were trying to tell initially.

That's a steep price to pay. Speaking more broadly than just as pertains to climate journalism, there's been quite a few editorials in recent years about the stifling of press freedom while President Obama has been in office. The Columbia Journalism Review in particular has covered some reports on it. But beyond the fossil fuel companies and this specific issue, do you see or fear larger issues of press freedom in America right now?

Absolutely. It's all very troubling. It's hard to know where to go with that, because the more attention we put on press freedom, the less attention we're paying to the issues we're trying to cover. That's scary. People can draw their own inferences from that.

I know the Edward Snowden tweet garnered a lot of attention. His juxtaposition of how many years both of you were facing in prison was really powerful. Was there any immediate reaction after that tweet went out, in terms of support or backing?

Certainly. That has gotten a lot of people's eyes on my story. I know that other organizations, and organizations for freedom of the press and haven taken note of it. He's got a pretty big audience.

Were you surprised when it went up, or did you already have a working relationship with him?

I was very surprised. I know he's kind of got his finger on the pulse of these things, but I still didn't realize that my particular situation was that big of a story already.

So where do you go from here? What are the next steps legally? When do you have to be back in North Dakota?

I'll find out on November 7 when the preliminary hearing is going to be.

Is there anything else we didn't touch on that you want people to know?

I just hope that other members of the media don't get discouraged. I think with things like this going on, it's more critical than ever that independent media get out to the stories that aren't being covered by mainstream media.

I would say that the majority of people's voices are not being represented by mainstream media, and those are the people we most need to hear from, especially with issues as critical as climate change and the protection of water and air and basic human rights.

Is there any reason that you see for why the mainstream media has been slow to really start covering issues of climate change, as opposed to, say, environmental-centered outlets?

There's no question that there's influence of funding that's impacting the reporting that's done. Fossil fuel companies are very deep pocketed. I don't know what's happening behind the scenes, but it would certainly be easy to understand why they wouldn't want something that threatens their profits broadcasted.

From a news consumer's standpoint—in terms of finding the stories that aren't necessarily being widely broadcasted, are there certain outlets that you recommend checking?

Just this week I was on the Young Turks and Ryot; I think they're doing a great job. DeSmogBlog does great climate reporting. Inside Climate News is another one.

If you would like to contribute to the legal defense fund for Deia and other journalists and activists facing legal charges, you can do so here.