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British Photographer To Answer Charges In The Land Of The Free

18 December 2001 - EPUK

Morgan, 45 years old, a veteran freelance photographer with a long and impressive client list and over twenty years experience, had been assigned by Greenpeace to cover one of their actions in the States. He’d shot this kind of job for them before, and knew the drill – get the pictures, and get them out fast, to Reuters & AFP.

Pacific Ocean, 14 July 2001. Greenpeace demonstration against “Star Wars”. Photo by Steve Morgan

After taking this picture British photojournalist Steve Morgan was arrested, shackled hand and foot, strip searched and thrown into a maximum security prison facing six years on a conspiracy charge.

Where? Haiti? North Korea? Afghanistan? No, this is California, in the land of the free. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, yes. Freedom of speech, maybe. But the pursuit of photojournalism is apparently NOT protected by the US constitution.

Press? Your Cell Is This Way Sir

On 14th July 2001 he climbed into a Greenpeace press boat off the California coast to shoot their demonstration against a Star Wars missile test at nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. When he got off the boat ready to transmit he was confronted by FBI agents, who arrested him and seized his cameras. Right from the start they were in no doubt at all about who he was or what he was doing. Hands already tied, he asked them to pull out his press card; one of them did so, and examined it. He was then thrown into Kern County jail, wearing orange prison fatigues and sharing a cell fifteen metres square with thirty four other people. Fifteen Greenpeace demonstrators and one other journalist had also been arrested.

So instead of sending his pictures round the world he found himself charged with trespass, disobeying the orders of a federal officer and – conspiracy! Conspiracy? Conspiracy to enter a safety zone. The latter charge would be particularly laughable, if the legal authorities in the most powerful nation on earth were not taking it, and prosecuting it, so seriously.

Absurd, but frightening. After a few weeks in prison many photographers would be facing bankruptcy. So far as Morgan was concerned he was still on assignment, and said so; luckily for him Greenpeace, to their credit, faced up to their responsibilities. They helped him out with air fares & accommodation, particularly important as his family – partner Heather, children George (5) and Henry (3) – flew over to the States to be with him. His cameras, which have still not been returned to him, were on hire. With Morgan facing equipment rental fees for several months, Greenpeace bought them outright. Since all his material was seized by the FBI he still hasn’t seen his pictures, with the exception of one or two low quality printouts disclosed as evidence by the prosecution.

The Price Of Freedom

Establishing his press credentials counted for nothing. Morgan was held inside for one week and had to fight hard to get bail, which was strongly opposed by the prosecution, and then set at $20,000. It cost another $50,000, paid up front, to allow him to return to the UK pending his full trial. This again was strongly opposed by the prosecution.

Steve Morgan, back in the UK. Photo by Andrew Wiard/reportphotos.com

Back home Morgan had this to say: “I’m very happy to be back in the UK and grateful to the judge for lifting travel restrictions to allow us to be with family and friends. I just feel disappointed that a nation as great as the USA should deem it necessary to pursue with such vigour double felony charges for what was a completely non-violent, well mannered demonstration by a group of people who believe the world would be a better place without nuclear weapons. And not only that, but to pursue with similar vigour the documenters of that protest – the photographer and videographer, two people with long and established track records as photojournalists.”

After all he’s been through, would he take on another job like this? “I would have no qualms about working for Greenpeace again – it would be determined by the kind of assignment offered. Greenpeace is an organisation that in general I believe has done a lot of good – I may not agree with everything that they do, but agree in general as do most people that we all want to live on a clean and peaceful planet. But if I was asked to cover a demo involving the US, inflatables and the military I think the answer would be pretty clearly – ‘No Thanks!’”

Too Close For Comfort

Its not just Morgan’s future which is at stake. Charges of this gravity have to be heard in a federal court, and a federal judgement will make case law throughout the United States. It will affect every working photojournalist from Cape Cod to Hawaii. Like all professional photojournalists, Morgan draws the clearest possible line between reporting a demonstration and taking part. But as Capa said, if you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. A judgement against Steve will send the clearest possible signal to anyone working in the States: if you’re close enough for good pictures, you too could end up in prison on a conspiracy charge.

The trial is now set for January 8th in the Los Angeles Federal Court. Since last July the United States has discovered that it faces far worse threats to its’ security than a handful of Greenpeace characters swimming in the Pacific. Threats no Star Wars missile screen can protect them against. Threats they – and we – are fighting in the name of democracy. So what on earth are they doing locking up press photographers?

EPUK hopes this farce will soon be over, Morgan cleared of all charges, and that he can get back to work. Not just for his sake, but for ours as well – here’s wishing him the best of luck.

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