News media could be granted access to restricted areas in emergency situations under Senate Bill 533, but critics worry reporters might put themselves in danger or interfere with rescue workers.

SB 533 would amend existing law that regulates disaster restrictions and was first introduced last year after members of the media were restricted as they tried to cover the Big Island lava flow that threatened the community of Pahoa. Emergency personnel blocked off street access and admitted only residents, their families and those helping residents collect their belongings.

The House Public Safety Committee passed the bill on a 7-0 vote Thursday, which means it will proceed to the Judiciary Committee.

Last year, the Senate unanimously approved the bill, but it stalled in the House and was carried over to the 2016 session.

Aerial shots from 2014 show lava flowing down a hill near the Pahoa Transfer Station on the Big Island.
Aerial shots from 2014 show lava flowing down a hill near the Pahoa Transfer Station on the Big Island. Volcano Video Productions

Written testimony noted Hawaii’s current emergency management law was modeled after one in California, but left out that state’s exemption for journalists.

Alaska and Ohio have similar laws that provide the media with access in emergency situations.

Big Island journalists submitted written testimony in favor of the bill and expressed their frustration at being unable to adequately cover the lava flow with original reporting, since state officials provided the facts, photographs and videos.

Denise Laitinen, owner of DLC Hawaii Media and vice president of Big Island Press Club, argued in her written testimony that reporters can do their jobs while respecting the need for safety. She said she had seen firsthand how restricting the media’s access in emergency events had amplified the fears of residents and family members.

Stirling Morita, president of the Hawaii Chapter Society of Professional Journalists, attested to the difficulty journalists had encountered when covering the lava flow and said “the law slows down the flow of information.”

But government officials said they’re concerned reporters could endanger themselves and interfere with emergency workers.

Some pointed out that media representatives can already request access to restricted areas. Currently, media members are allowed to enter evacuated or restricted areas if they have been granted permission beforehand by the local Emergency Operations Center office, according to written testimony from Melvin Kaku, director of the Honolulu City and County Department of Emergency Management.

Many who submitted testimony were concerned the bill’s definition of “media” was ambiguous. Doug Mayne, emergency management administrator of the state Department of Defense, said the phrase “online news distribution network” could mean anything from a blogger to “someone who merely posts to Twitter.”

Under SB 533, pool reporting would be allowed in a situation where full media access is impossible — which means a writer, photographer and videographer would be chosen to share information with colleagues who were not granted access. Written testimony from the state Department of Transportation said this system “would pose an unfair advantage to the selected pool journalist.”

The Department of Transportation was also concerned about the leakage of sensitive information, such as names of the deceased before next of kin is notified.

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