Kilauea’s lava inundation of Leilani Estates has attracted the eyes of the world.

While the volcanic eruption could stop at a moment’s notice — or continue for days and weeks to come — the public’s need to know exactly what is happening on the Big Island is essential.

In spite of that need, some members of the media initially encountered resistance from emergency management authorities. Similar complaints were lodged by the press during the recent record floods on Kauai’s North Shore.

The National Guard is now coordinating media trips to report on lava activity, and there has been improved cooperation between the press and the authorities.

Kahukai 13th eruption as lava erupts in Leilani Estates. Moments earlier an evacuation alert for poison gases /sulfuric Dioxide. You can see vegetation at left is brown from the poison.

The scene on Kahukai Street as the 13th eruption occurred in Leilani Estates. Moments earlier there was an evacuation alert for poison gases, which has turned some vegetation brown.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Still, reporters and photographers remain concerned that the flow of information from and the media access granted by government agencies has not always been smooth. Similar gripes are coming from social media, which is playing an invaluable role in helping tell the volcano story in “real time.”

Regrettably, the Hawaii Legislature makes control of the news flow legal, even though it steps on First Amendment rights. Last session it passed a bill — now part of state law — that reads in part, “Any decision regarding media access shall be at the sole discretion (italics added) of the designated emergency management authority for the affected emergency area.”

The statute stands even though it acknowledges that journalists are at their own risk in such situations, and that the state and counties are not to be held liable for any injury or damage to persons or property doing their job in a closed emergency area.

Ironically, Senate Bill 655 as initially drafted was intended to help the media do its job.

It was introduced by three state senators from the Big Island motivated to change our existing emergency access law as a result of the 2014 lava flow that threatened Pahoa (which is just a few miles from Leilani Estates).

Left, Tim Coakley films right, Leilani estates resident and volcano photographer Mick Kalber along Kahukai Street. 13th eruption. Puna, Hawaii.

Tim Coakley, at left, films Leilani estates resident and volcano photographer Mick Kalber.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The earlier version of the bill had the support of journalists like Robert Duerr, a writer for Hawaii Fishing News and a member of the Big Island Press Club.

“During emergencies Hawaii citizens and taxpayers have the right and want to be informed and updated by professional journalists,” Duerr wrote in testimony. “The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. Why? Because single-sourced government briefings and press releases are not enough in a free society.”

Stirling Morita, president of the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii chapter, reminded lawmakers that the state’s media access law “was patterned after California’s law but without the California provisions for media access in disasters. This became apparent after the media were shut out of areas overrun by lava on the Big Island.”

Media Blackout?

In Morita’s view, SB 655 would restore “some balance in the law governing county emergency controls in hazardous situations.”

Once the bill was amended, however, journalists Tom Callis and Lara Hughes of the Big Island Press Club objected. They disagreed with giving emergency managers “sole discretion” to determine media access.

“That language could be used to justify a complete media blackout, which goes against the spirit of this bill,” they wrote in testimony. Callis and Hughes also warned against “management of the media and the story by government officials.”

Cory Lum covering Kahukai Street in Leilani Estates Volcano LAva.

Civil Beat photographer Cory Lum on the job in Puna.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Their concerns were not heeded, and here we are today with the second major lava flow in four years. The misinformation in the national media includes Fox News running a screen crawler reading “Spewing Lava And Toxic Gas From HI Volcano Forcing Oahu Residents To Evacuate” and legacy media (including the New York Times) referring to residents of our islands as “Hawaiians.”

Worried about the visitor impact, the Hawaii Tourism Authority is issuing travel advisories stating:

There is absolutely no reason at this time for travelers to change or alter their leisure or business plans. All of the Hawaiian Islands are unaffected by Kilauea volcano except a remote area on the island of Hawaii’s east side. Out of the island’s 4,028 square miles, only less than a 10-square-mile area of Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens Subdivisions in Puna is affected.

Emergency authorities including Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, county civil defense, Gov. David Ige and Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim need to let the media do its job in spite of the danger. That’s our role and our risk.

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