06 February 2012

Animal welfare activists facing international state persecution

Florida's Legislature has decided to drop a provision which would have made it a crime to photograph or videotape agricultural facilities without the owner's consent.

The decision to kill the lobbyist-backed "ag gag" proposal represents a small victory for animal welfare activists, who are battling not only legislation of a similar nature in other states such as Iowa, Minnesota, and New York, but also increased pressure from the federal government. Documents issued by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2003 and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by activist Ryan Shapiro show the FBI advising that activists who video tape at farms and/or rescue animals are in violation of terrorism statutes via the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.

"Some of these investigations don't even break state laws," says Rachel Meerpol, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. "It's possible to gain undercover footage lawfully. The way the FBI is interpreting this law would allow for prosecution of completely lawful, valuable advocacy efforts as an act of terrorism. It's an issue of public safety as well as animal cruelty. It's such a waste of time and resources for the FBI to be spending money investigating folks involved in this work."

Internationally, legislative action against animal welfare activists has also become more widespread. In 2011, Justice for Animals made public the results of a two-year undercover investigation of 30 different farms in Finland. Though their footage revealed horrifying images and video footage of pigs with open sores crammed into confined dirty spaces, no action was taken against the farmers; instead, the investigators were charged with ten cases of disturbing the peace, and 12 cases of aggravated defamation (the charges were eventually dropped). During the same year, the European Union's criminal intelligence agency, EUROPOL, released their annual "2011 EU Terrorism and Situation Trend Report" (PDF). In it, the authors express concern that "some members of animal rights, anarchist and environmental extremist groups are moving towards a shared ideology." The report accuses animal welfare activists of "using disinformation methods to discredit their targets and weaken their public acceptance" through "images of sick and abused animals" which are "embedded in video footage and made public."

Undercover footage has been utilized dozens of times in the past to raise public awareness about ongoing animal abuse or unsanitary conditions (sometimes both), making it a vital tool for those seeking changes in the meat industry, and conversely, a prime target for destruction by those valuing the status quo. If legislators are able to label those who expose institutionalized animal cruelty as "terrorists," which social movements might be targeted next? Such a dangerous precedent must be stopped before it is allowed to potentially spiral out of control.

Jonathan Reynolds
Jonathan is a freelance writer and blogger residing in upstate New York.

Photo credit:  foxumon