On Wednesday I got word from an old colleague and friend that he had been arrested in Colorado following his coverage of an environmental protest at the Valmont Power Plant near Boulder on Tuesday April 27th. Ethan Welty was independently covering the protest by environmental activists and was photographing from outside of the plant’s perimeter and in the crowd that had gathered. He has put together his pictures from the event on photoshelter. Shortly after the four who had trespassed on the plant’s property were arrested and escorted out police approached Welty, who was on property outside of the power plant, and arrested him. All five were charged with 2nd Degree Criminal trespass, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $750 fine. Welty is trying to set the record straight, as media is reporting that simply five were arrested at the protest and no one (including the police) is acknowledging that he was there covering the event as a member of the press and that he was obviously not with the four protesters inside the plant. All five were booked and released on the misdemeanor charge, and are awaiting a June 17th court appearance.
Here is the statement he has been trying to circulate to the AP and other publications who have run stories about the event, who have included him by name as one of the protesters arrested (for instance, see coverage on Google News):
I’m writing on behalf of myself, in an attempt to set the record straight regarding yesterday’s arrests at the Valmont Power Plant.
I, Ethan Welty, was at the protest as an independent photojournalist following a news lead, and maintained that role throughout. My photos from the event, all taken legally from outside plant property (and linked below), make it extremely clear that I was not with the four activists on the coal pile, something your article (and by now the nation’s press) wrongfully implies. My questionable arrest occurred after theirs, suddenly and unexpectedly, while I was standing in the street by the rally.
He also described the situation to me in an email:
“My arrest occurred after the four protesters had been escorted out of the plant and into police vehicles. I was standing on the sidewalk besides the rally, two large cameras slung around my neck, when officers suddenly approached me, ordered me to stop shooting pictures and seized me by the wrist.
They informed me that Xcel Energy (who owns the plant) had pointed me out, claiming they had evidence of me trespassing – and thus I was under arrest. I was so shocked and confused that I could hardly utter a defense (being arrested was a first for me). To their credit, they were polite and very respectful of my equipment, allowing me to choose whether or not to hand over my gear for safekeeping. Concerned that my images might never see the light of day, I decided to trust a bystander with my memory cards, and supposedly I will be able to retrieve my camera equipment from the Boulder County Courthouse later this week [ed: Welty picked up the equipment on Thursday morning].
While the Sheriff’s Office lumped me with the four protesters (efforts at the jail to explain otherwise were stopped short with “tell it to the Judge”), according to a reporter, the Xcel spokesperson referred to me as the Daily Camera photographer (the local Boulder newspaper) – so Xcel was likely aware that I was press, and no protester.”
The Daily Camera has issued a correction to their story that originally said Welty was one of the protesters, but many other publications and the police have not recognized Welty as a member of the press. For the clearest and most disappointing example of how this has shown itself, see this article and screen grab of mugshots by Denver’s ABC television station, which had to correct its article after Welty contacted them.
The key document here is the Boulder County Sheriff’s Offices’ media release, which states that Welty was one of “five of the protesters [who] climbed over the fence and on to property belonging to Xcel”. He denies ever entering Xcel’s property and the evidence from his photographs support this. The statement does not mention anything about him being separate from the group nor a photographer. It is clear that there was lazy investigation and reporting by the police which led to lazy journalism by publications picking up the story, who have essentially reprinted the police’s inaccurate press release. Welty added that the four declined to make statements at the jail until they had spoken with their attorney, which is why they have not “gone on the record” saying that he was not part of the group.
This is an issue not just of press freedom for an independent photographer covering an event but of Ethan Welty’s ability to fight false accusations and bad reporting which have brought his name into media reports of the event. He stresses that the fact of this inaccurate and poor reporting, on both the Boulder Police’s part and the echoing media, is what has angered him the most. It seems likely that Welty will be able to fight against this charge in front of a judge in June and prove his innocent role in the event, but the media reports are already done and unlikely to be corrected or retracted in 6 weeks’ time.