USA: Agriculture Gag Laws Are Violating Press Freedom In The US.


Uk Major daily press article – Wednesday 6 June 2012

Agriculture gag laws are violating press freedom in the US

Measures to penalise investigative reporters who expose conditions in industrial agriculture are a threat to democracy.

Big companies have pushed legislators to pass laws limiting the freedom to report on conditions at livestock facilities including slaughterhouses. Photograph: Christian Charisius/Reuters

Multiple states have passed what are known as “ag gag laws”, designed to penalise investigative reporters who explore conditions on industrial agriculture operations. Many of these laws focus specifically on livestock, in the wake of numerous exposés on the abuses of livestock in industrial agriculture. These laws are a significant threat to the freedom of the press, and it’s rather remarkable that they are being allowed to stand. More than that, they threaten the health and safety of consumers, in addition to making it difficult and sometimes impossible for consumers to make educated choices about the sources of their food.

The US should be in an uproar about ag gag laws, and it’s not. That’s a telling reflection of attitudes about agriculture, and illustrates the lack of interest among many people in the US about journalism and how it functions, and the purpose of investigative journalism in particular. Attempts to raise awareness about the issue are often met with indifference; they are not as interesting and seductive as celebrity scandals, evidently, even though they are far more scandalous, and impact people’s lives more immediately and directly.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the source of the pressure behind ag gag laws is, of course, industrial agriculture. Big companies have pushed legislators heavily to pass laws limiting the freedom to report on conditions at livestock facilities, including ranches, feedlots, and slaughterhouses. With the benefit of lobbyists, they can exert pressure directly in the halls of the legislature, as well as doing so indirectly by contributing to the electoral process and deciding who gets elected. In states like Iowa, you have to be agriculture-friendly to get elected, and if you want a chance at beating the competition, you’d better be willing to toe the line on industrial agriculture so you’ll get the needed support.

Several techniques are used in ag gag laws in an attempt to restrict the ability to report on livestock operations. One option has been quite direct, with an attempt to ban the distribution of photos and videos taken on farms without consent of the owner. These attempts have been smacked down on the grounds that they violate first amendment rights. Taking a new angle, lobbyists have pushed for legislation that makes lying on job applications related to agricultural work a criminal offense. A journalist taking an undercover job, in other words, could be convicted of a crime.

Many people are not aware of the entirely legal animal abuse in industrial agriculture, which is one thing journalists can expose; treatment that appears horrific, wrong, and abusive is actually quite legal in many states. In other cases, journalists can expose abuses that actually are illegal, spurring both public outrage and investigation. These kinds of exposés are important, because people should know about the source of their food, and they should be aware of the high price they pay for cheap meat.

It’s not just about animal welfare. Industrial agriculture also trashes the environment, something that should be of grave concern even to people who aren’t concerned about the health and wellbeing of animals raised for food. Industrial farms contribute to air, water, and soil pollution, consume vast volumes of water, and destroy soil biology and animal habitat, because the goal is to produce as much food as possible as quickly as possible. In this setting, environmental health is not a significant concern; but investigative journalism could force action on the subject, pressuring legislators to clamp down on environmental protection and force industrial agriculture to clean up its act.

Furthermore, worker abuses are also a significant concern in industrial agriculture. Slaughterhouses are some of the most dangerous working environments in the US, and they are staffed predominantly by immigrants, documented and undocumented, making the minimum wage or close to it. The work is hard and fast, which means that people are prone to injury, and in a high-speed production line, there is limited time to address workplace injuries. Severe disabilities are not uncommon, and in the case of undocumented workers, there are few resources when it comes to dealing with disability and seeking compensation when such injuries are clearly the result of dangerous working conditions.

This is why investigative journalism is important: because it brings these kinds of abuses to light and confronts consumers with information about the facts behind their food. Journalists in a wide range of industries and environments spend months or years on research, often from the inside, to prepare stories intended to spark comment, discussion, and change. Ag gag laws are only one example of an attempt to limit the ability to report freely on pressing social issues, and they should be a subject of anger and horror in the population at large. Lobbyists are attempting to limit access to information, and they are doing so by limiting the abilities of journalists to do their jobs.

The anger about exposés is well-founded; consumers are usually horrified when they see images and video from livestock facilities, as well they should be. Dead and dying animals packed close together in unhealthy, dangerous conditions, some with open sores and other obvious health problems. Animals treated casually and abusively by staff members who need to work fast, and cannot afford compassion or gentleness. Horrific conditions in slaughterhouses, where terrified animals are rushed through the production line and subjected to utterly inhumane and dangerous conditions. Workers who are tired, working through overtime, obviously ill, and at high risk of injury.

That the reaction to exposés is to silence journalists, rather than addressing the poor conditions, is an inevitable consequence of capitalism. It is more cost effective to shut off the stories, rather to fix the problem, and legislators are evidently happy to go along with this plan, passing ag gag laws to ensure silence about the continued abuse of farm animals. Consumers, in turn, tolerate this because they have no idea about the nature of the news they can’t see.

Previous SAV Ag Gag posts:

Serbia: 06/12: The Stara Planina Campaign Moves On Again With Further EU Commission Involvement.

June 2012.

The last few weeks have been busy for everyone involved with the ‘Save Stara Planina’ campaign.

Serbian environmentalists / AR campaigners have now obtained further evidence which shows that some of the construction work undertaken at Stara Planina was in breach of existing legislation.

There is also concerns about the way in which existing environmental legislation, in the form of ‘Article 35’ of serbian law, is being changed to reflect allowances to environmental conditions which environmentalists (and us) consider is due to pressure from the construction industry.

Please click on the following link to obtain a full overview of our concerns: 

And so in addition to this it has been necessary to make further contact with the EU Commission (both for the Environment and also for EU Enlargement) to express ourr concerns over what is happening.

Mark; SAV founder has written on 10/06/12 to the EU; providing up to date information, and also links to past SAV work which we have undertaken with serbian enviironmentalists.

A copy of Mark’s most recent letter (10 June) to the EU can be read by clicking on the following link:

 SAV Version EU Commission Letter

SAV have provided serbian campaigners with full EU Commission contact details, and they will also be making written contact with the EU in the coming week.

We need to expose what excatly is happening to the EU, especially as Serbia is a potential future EU member state – hence us providing data to the Enlargement Commission – the section which associates with future new EU membership.

We have asked the EU Commission to investigate the situation further and report back to us.

We will provide further updates to events as and when we have a response from the EU Commission.