Proposed legislation effectively states that agribusiness and journalism do not mix

By: Steven Zhou

In both Iowa and Florida, a series of proposed laws are working their way through the state legislatures which, if passed, would make it illegal to take pictures or videos of farming conditions.

According to Senators Jim Norman of Florida and Sandy Greiner of Iowa, the purpose of the proposed bills is to target animal rights groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), whose activists have, in the past, taken footage of questionable farming practices and conditions.

Aside from possible violations of the First Amendment rights of the press, many animal welfare organizations see the proposed bills as corrosive to the transparency of big agribusiness, an industry whose ethical treatment of animals and livestock have been questioned in the past.

As reported by the, PETA’s Jeff Kerr has stated that lawmakers should work to show people where their food actually comes from and how it is processed rather than demonizing investigative journalists and activists who uncover cases of animal cruelty.

The Globe and Mail has reported that, if passed, those who take pictures or videos of farms without permission can end up in jail for years. Iowan Senator Sandy Greiner has further suggested that those who take footage of animal cruelty are also complicit in perpetuating such cruelty, since they are not doing anything to physically stop the abuse.

“I mean, they film it to bring a business down and that individual that’s abusing those animals should be prosecuted as well as the person filming because they’re allowing it to happen without attempting to stop it,” said Greiner. Senator Greiner did not address whether this legislation would impede the rights of journalists to cover such acts of abuse in order to inform the larger public of systemic animal cruelty.

Senators Norman and Greiner have also found supporters for their bills in the pro-agribusiness Animal Agricultural Alliance (AAA). The AAA has stated emphatically that investigative journalists and activists have to be taken to task for trying to advance a “vegan agenda” via demonization of farmers and meat processors.

“It is imperative that activists be held accountable for their actions to undermine farmers, ranchers and meat processors through use of videos depicting alleged mistreatment of animals for the purposes of gaining media attention and fundraising – all in an effort to drive their vegan agenda,” the AAA said in a press release.

The Globe and Mail has also reported that in addition to their support for these bills, the AAA has agreed to go set up works shops in the future in order to train employees of big agribusiness “to spot a pesky investigate reporter or PETA member.”

In the past, businesses have been brought down due to the work of investigative journalists who uncover cases of cruel farming practices. Such work has revealed that large agribusiness corporations have not functioned well ethically when left unchecked by a watchdog press.

The proposition to suppress journalists who investigate and monitor agricultural businesses highlights how the press can be given the short end of the stick when legislative propositions line up strategically with large corporate interests, all in the spirit of being “pro-business”.

Ultimately, such legislation has an adverse effect in the dissemination of crucial information, as it seeks to make the work of investigative journalists–enshrined by the United States constitution–illegal.

Steven Zhou is a graduate of the University of Toronto at Mississauga. He is a regular contributor to The Canadian Charger E-Weekly, and has also written for Dissident Voice, Counterpunch, and The Electronic Intifada. He will be pursuing a Masters in Journalism starting this fall, and is currently a volunteer for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).