Media access bill gets new life

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A bill, deferred twice by the chair of a House committee, has been resurrected via a little political baseball.

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A bill, deferred twice by the chair of a House committee, has been resurrected via a little political baseball.

It wasn’t exactly “gut-and-replace,” as nothing was actually taken out. Rather, Sen. Lorraine Inouye, D-Hilo, described it as a “Christmas tree.”

Last week, at Inouye’s request, the state Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs (PSM) amended a House bill aimed at mitigating hazardous situations by inserting word-for-word language from a separate measure which sought to ease restrictions on news media covering events, such as the June 27 lava flow. And it did it to a bill sponsored by none other than the very House representative who refused to give the media access measure a hearing.

“The Legislature finds that there are often significant events in the state that greatly affect the State’s residents,” the amended version reads. “The recent lava flow on Hawaii Island impacted many residents, but the news media was restricted from accessing areas that were closed pursuant to emergency management powers.”

As a result, legislators say, the media was unable to disseminate complete information, which can prove crucial in the mitigation of such hazards.

When introduced by Rep. Gregg Takayama, D-Pearl City, House Bill 1344 sought solely to appropriate funds for two additional positions in the Department of Defense.

The legislation was passed unamended by a pair of House committees and transmitted to the Senate, where the PSM committee voted unanimously in support of including the news media provision.

Takayama called the amendment as a “bit of a stretch,” and said he continues to oppose it.

The language was taken directly from HB 539 and its companion SB 533, both of which Takayama effectively killed as chair of the Committee on Public Safety. Ironically, it has now ended up in a bill of his own.

Inouye, who co-sponsored SB 533, said she believes in the measure as the public has the right to know what happens in communities across the state.

“This issue affects all kinds of disasters, not only lava inundation,” she said.

Before being deferred, the measure drew opposition from Civil Defense and police officials who said restrictions were put in place to maintain public safety. In its current form, HB 1344 would amend Act 111, which went into effect only days before the flow emerged from Pu‘u ‘O‘o, to allow news media, under the supervision of emergency management agency personnel, to cover the mitigation of hazardous situations and access areas that are closed to the general public.

Act 111 granted additional powers to the counties during emergencies and has been used since the June 27 flow began threatening Pahoa to keep news media from accessing restricted areas, making it difficult for journalists to interview those most impacted by the disaster.

Takayama said his position hasn’t changed.

He does not think it is a good idea to give media special treatment. And if HB 1344 passses through the Senate and comes back to the House for approval, he plans to vote accordingly.

“If unfortunately we have to kill a good bill to also kill a not so good bill, then that’s the way it goes sometimes politically,” he said.

Inouye said she also knows how to “play baseball” and finds it ridiculous that we would send members of the press to war but restrict them access to properly cover a natural disaster here on the Big Island.

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Sen. Will Espero, D-Ewa Beach and chair of PSM, the committee that amended the bill, could not be reached for comment.

HB 1344 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means (WAM) but not yet been given a hearing. Big Island Sens. Inouye and Russell Ruderman, who each sponsored SB 533, are members of the WAM committee.

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