The lava flow that threatened to bury the Hawaii Island town of Pahoa in 2014 and 2015 made international headlines.

People feared for their homes and livelihoods as Madame Pele came close to cutting off traffic in and out of much of the Puna district.

Members of the media converged on Pahoa, but some were frustrated in their work by a state law passed in 2014 that gave the governor and county mayors broad powers to restrict media access during disasters and emergencies.

Since then, several senators have sought unsuccessfully to amend the law to give media “all reasonable access and assistance” to areas closed under the law, known as Act 111.

Members from the Task Force Response Army and Air National Guard personnel stand at road block at Pahoa Village Road and Post Office Road only allowing residents that live in the area passage. No media are allowed within this road blocked areas. 30 October 2014. photo Cory Lum

National Guard members at a roadblock on Pahoa Village and Post Office roads in 2014. No media were allowed past that point.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The latest effort is Senate Bill 655, which passed the Judiciary and Labor Committee on Thursday. Its sponsors include Big Island Sens. Lorraine Inouye, Russell Ruderman and Josh Green, all Democrats.

The Big Island Press Club, the Hawaii Association of Broadcasters and the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter testified in support of the bill’s initial draft last month. It read in part:

Nothing in this section shall prevent a duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, radio station, television station, or online news distribution network from entering an area closed pursuant to this section. News media shall be given all reasonable access and assistance in accessing the area closed pursuant to this section. When full access cannot be reasonably granted, a pool writer, pool photographer, and pool videographer shall be designated to gather and disseminate information.”

Stirling Morita, the SPJ president, noted in his testimony that Act 111 was modeled on a California law, but without provisions for media access in disasters.

“This became apparent after the media were shut out of areas overrun by lava on the Big Island,” he said.

He added, “We support SB 655 as a way of restoring some balance in the law governing county emergency controls in hazardous situations. … We believe that SB 655 would allow some media access without being burdensome to government. The media are not asking for unfettered access, and the bill allows for pool coverage of disasters.”

However, heeding the advice of the state Department of Transportation, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies, the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee amended SB 655 on Feb. 14.

Lava flowing down a hill near the Pahoa Transfer Station on the Big Island.

Volcano Video Productions

That amended version, the one approved Thursday in Senate Judiciary and Labor, requires that members of the media who are given access to restricted areas be “credentialed” and accompanied by emergency management personnel.

It also calls for limiting the liability of the state and counties, and establishing liability for media personnel.

Finally, it provides that the authority in charge of a particular emergency management area have “the sole discretion in determining the access granted to media members in an affected area.”

‘Safety, Liability And Logistical Issues’

Additional amendments may be coming.

DOT Director Ford Fuchigami said his agency “believes in transparency and providing accurate information to the public,” but it is also has concerns “over safety, liability and logistical issues with the broad media access.”

Vern Miyagi, administrator for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said in testimony, “Although providing media access should not be unreasonably withheld, access must be balanced without creating additional safety/security hazards or interfering with ongoing efforts. The designated emergency management authority for the affected jurisdiction is the most qualified person to make this decision.”

Sen Russell Ruderman editorial board

Sen. Russell Ruderman said the media needs access to emergency areas to help keep the public informed.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The changes already made to SB 655 did not sit well with Tom Callis and Lara Hughes of the Big Island Press Club.

In their testimony, they said they don’t want government to have sole discretion in determining whether access is necessary because it “could be used to justify a complete media blackout, which goes against the spirit of this bill.”

In a nod to recent attacks on the media by the Trump administration, Callis and Hodges added, “It’s become even more apparent in recent months why our democracy requires an independent media that can provide verified information to the public.”

“We talk so much about the Fourth Estate today, the need for the press to tell us what’s going on separate from the government.” — Sen. Russell Ruderman

They also urged lawmakers to remove the word “credentialed,” arguing that the Legislature “should avoid narrowing the scope of who is considered a journalist.”

It’s not clear whether the Big Island Press Club will get its way.

Judiciary and Labor Chairman Gil Keith-Agaran said SB 655 could be amended further based on comments from DOT and HEMA.

In their most recent testimony, Fuchigami and Miyagi insisted on an agency’s ability to control media access.

For example, under Fuchigami’s proposal the bill would state that news media “may” rather than “shall” be given reasonable access (as opposed to “all” reasonable access) and assistance in accessing the area closed pursuant to this section.”

A Public Service

The public won’t know what’s in the amended bill until the latest draft is posted online, which could come later this week.

Ruderman, whose district includes Pahoa, said he appreciated the concerns for public safety. But he also said it is important for the public to have a free flow of information.

“We talk so much about the Fourth Estate today, the need for the press to tell us what’s going on separate from the government,” he said.

Ruderman said that people for the most part came and went as they pleased during the three decades that Kilauea has been active. It wasn’t until Act 111 that this changed.

“There was too much of a turn in the other direction, and it was a media blackout in essence,” he said. “People couldn’t even bring a reporter onto their private property for threat of arrest.”

Ruderman, who is also a member of the Big Island Press Club, said he hoped SB 655 would ultimately be crafted in a way that balances the needs of the public with the needs of the government.

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