Ag-gag laws that hinder or gag animal protection activists are becoming increasingly widespread in the United States and there are moves in Australia to start a similar crack-down.
Several Australian politicians have called for tough laws against animal activists, including increased penalties for trespass. Legislators in South Australia have been debating a Bill that could send those gathering undercover footage of cruelty on factory farms to jail for three years.
The attempt to introduce ag-gag legislation into Australia has provoked considerable public and political protest, and a raft of petitions against the proposed laws.
The Surveillance Devices Bill 2014 was debated by the South Australian Legislative Council yesterday (Tuesday) and will be voted on this week.
The Bill would ban the installation and use of surveillance devices and make it illegal to use, communicate, or publicise any information or images gathered through surveillance.
While the legislation does not specifically mention agricultural facilities or factory farming, it is similar to ag-gag laws in place in the US.
Defending the voiceless
“These are draconian laws that seek to prevent animal advocates, the media, and agriculture workers from making public the often horrific truths behind factory farming,” said Emmanuel Giuffre, legal counsel for Voiceless, an independent and not-for-profit think-tank that works to alleviate the suffering caused by factory farming and the commercial hunting of kangaroos.
“If implemented, the Australian Bill will criminalise the release of information derived from unlawful surveillance to the public – stifling transparency, public debate, and media investigations into factory farm cruelty.
“Any individual activist, journalist, or whistle-blower who gathers footage undercover on a factory farm could face a 15,000 AUD fine or three years in jail.
“Images like these are the only window we have into the treatment of animals on factory farms and it should not be a crime to publicise them.”
Surveillance footage, which is often graphic and confronting, promotes public awareness and this leads to open dialogue, which is essential in shaping public opinion and encouraging law reform, Giuffre says.
“While Voiceless does not endorse unlawful behaviour, it acknowledges the benefit of surveillance in the areas of animal and consumer protection.”
The Surveillance Devices Bill
The South Australian Labour Minister Gail Gago reintroduced the Surveillance Devices Bill 2014 on June 5, 2014. It would repeal South Australia’s 1972 Listening and Surveillance Devices Act.
The new Bill includes the following provisions:
• It prohibits the installation, use, and maintenance of surveillance devices – both audio and visual – with few exceptions.
• It prohibits the use, communication, or publishing of information or material derived from the use of surveillance devices in contravention of the Act.
• It imposes tough sentences on individuals and corporations found in violation of these provisions, with a maximum penalty of 75,000 AUD for a corporation and 15,000 AUD or three years’ imprisonment for an individual.
• It prohibits an individual or corporation from possessing certain surveillance devices and imposes a maximum penalty of 50,000 AUD for a corporation and 10,000 AUD or two years’ imprisonment for an individual.
There are “public interest” grounds for using surveillance devices, but this exemption is severely restricted by the need for a court order before such a device is used.
The implications for animal advocacy were referred to in the Bill’s reintroduction. In her Second Reading speech, Gail Gago noted that the Bill would receive criticism from animal activists seeking to use undercover surveillance, and would be praised by farmers seeking to prohibit this conduct.
South Australia’s attorney-general John Rau says, however, that the proposed Bill is not an ag-gag law and is more focused on an individual’s right to privacy.
“This conversation is being hijacked into an animal protection point,” he told ABC radio. The Bill, he said, was about protecting people from bugging; from being secretly filmed in their own backyards. It would be for a court to decide if a recording was in the public interest, he added, and publishing a video on the Internet in contravention of the Act would be punishable.
“It is explicitly said in this legislation that if these recordings are handed on to law enforcement authorities for the purposes of prosecution, that it totally protected. So the suggestion that people who are engaged in animal cruelty will not be prosecuted as a result of this is completely wrong.”
The industrial and political lobby
Farmers and the pork industry have been calling for harsher penalties for activists who illegally enter farms, and they have some powerful political allies.
Australia’s Federal Agriculture Minister, Senator Barnaby Joyce, recently announced a co-ordinated national effort to crack down on animal activists gathering and publicising footage collected on factory farms.
Joyce said farmers needed to be protected from camera-wielding “vigilantes”.
Senator Chris Back in West Australia has proposed ag-gag legislation, and the New South Wales Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, has labelled certain animal protection activities as akin to terrorism.
The NSW state is proposing new “biosecurity” legislation that includes much heavier penalties for trespass.
In Victoria, the agriculture minister Peter Walsh confirmed that tough new legislation targeting animal activists would be introduced before the next Victorian state election to better “protect” farmers.
Robert Brown, from the Shooters and Fishers Party, recently gave a speech in the New South Wales Legislative Council denouncing the work of animal activists, and referring specifically to their surveillance activities. He called for tougher laws to regulate the use of drones, which are used by activists to monitor agricultural facilities, check on the welfare of cattle in feedlots, and verify the animal welfare claims of “free-range” farms.
The West Australian Labour Senator Glenn Sterle also backs the introduction of ag-gag laws. He said he wanted to see evidence of deliberate animal cruelty to be handed over to “proper regulators” without extended delays to avoid sensitive issues becoming overtly politicised.
Emmanuel Giuffre says, however, that many Australian politicians would stand against any attempts to introduce ag-gag laws in the country.
Greens party MPs and legislative council members throughout Australia have made clear their opposition to the current proposals.
The Greens’ animal welfare spokeswoman, Senator Lee Rhiannon, said Senator Joyce wanted to punish people who expose cruelty to animals with harsher penalties than the punishments meted out to those who commit the violence.
“Instead of working with farming communities to improve animal welfare, Minister Joyce is trying to hoodwink the Australian people by citing biosecurity as a reason to introduce laws protecting perpetrators of animal cruelty.
“Undercover investigators play an important role as their exposure of animal cruelty helps highlight the need for improved farming practices.”
The Tasmanian Greens animal welfare spokeswoman, Cassy O’Connor MP, has called on the Tasmanian government to make clear that it will not support Joyce’s proposed legislation. “Tasmania already has adequate penalties for crimes such as trespass and damage to property. Further draconian measures are unnecessary and further proof of the anti-democratic, pro-cruelty coalition agenda,” she said.
Covert footage reveals horrific cruelty
Covert surveillance by animal rights activists has revealed horrific conditions in sow-stall piggeries, battery-cage henneries, and intensive duck sheds. “The footage they collect has provided consumers with a true picture of the conditions in which animals used for food are raised on factory farms, fuelling a movement of ethical consumerism,” said Giuffre.
“This footage has been used in court proceedings, resulting in farm handlers being convicted of animal cruelty and neglect, the forced closure of commercial operators, and producers being fined heavily for misleading and deceptive conduct.
“The new Bill would make it a crime to release any footage collected covertly, even where it provides evidence of illegal animal cruelty. Ag-gag laws serve only to shield the commercial interests of intensive farming operations and to stifle transparency about factory farming and illegal animal cruelty. This new Bill is an illiberal response, and one which should not be enacted into law.”
Voiceless says there is already strong legislation that protects producers from unlawful trespass and the use of undercover surveillance. “This Bill is not being sought to address a gap in the law, but rather to prevent evidence of animal cruelty from being made public.”
American journalist Will Potter, who wrote the book Green is the New Red and was recently on a speaking tour of Australia, says ag-gag is coming to Australia because Australian animal advocates have been incredibly effective.
There is a long history of open rescues and undercover investigations in Australia, Potter says, and activists such as Patty Mark and Animal Liberation Victoria are known internationally for their pioneering work.
Also, national media exposés such as the Four Corners programme about live exports, “A Bloody Business”, had provoked public outrage.
Giuffre says Australian animal rights activists have become increasingly effective in gathering and releasing undercover footage exposing animal cruelty and highlighting the truth behind factory farming. “We’ve seen footage from over a dozen Australian piggeries of pigs being beaten, of endless rows of sows imprisoned in metal and concrete stalls, unable to take a step forward or back; unable even to turn around.
“We’ve seen footage of thousands of ducks crammed into sheds, wading in their own filth, their legs unable to support their weight because they’ve been deprived of much-needed water for their entire lives.”
There has been footage, Giuffre says, of countless live export atrocities, “footage of Australian cattle and sheep being brutally abused, being slaughtered on the streets in backyard butcheries and unauthorised slaughterhouses overseas”.
Wally’s Piggery, near Yass, New South Wales, was forced to close after footage obtained by Animal Liberation NSW in 2012 caused a public outcry. It showed pigs being bludgeoned and kept in filthy, cramped conditions. The owners have pleaded not guilty to aggravated animal cruelty and other charges.
The organisation Animals Australia tells some horrific stories on its website, including the one about Nature’s Child, a prize-winning thoroughbred mare, who was discarded by the Australian racing industry. Her life ended in horrendous cruelty at a Victorian knackery. “She was shot in front of her equine companion, then dragged by a tractor – while still alive – to a killing floor, where a worker cut off her tail and slit her throat. Other horses were beaten with pipes, transported while sick and injured, or left dead in the holding yard.”
The evidence was collected by the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.
Investigations by Animals Australia in the Middle East and South East Asia exposed cruelty in the live export trade and resulted in the first ever suspension of live animal exports – to Egypt in 2006, then Indonesia in 2011 – and sweeping reforms to the operation of the entire industry.
The organisation’s investigation into the factory farming of pigs in Australia was a catalyst to the pig industry agreeing to restrict the use of stalls for pregnant sows by 2017.
The wider issues
Giuffre says there is a growing movement of ethical consumers who care where their food comes from and want to see farm animals treated with respect.
“This is not just an animal protection issue; it’s an environmental protection issue and a consumer protection issue; it’s civil liberties generally and I think that any attempts by governments to try to suppress free speech or suppress dissent – and that’s exactly what it is – would be opposed by a large contingent of our politicians, but of course they need to be made aware of the issue.”
Australians have an opportunity that activists lacked in the US, Potter says; they are better informed and can identify and stop ag-gag proposals before they become law.
A global crack-down
Potter says the “disproportionate response to environmental and animal rights activism” is occurring globally. “In Spain, there is the round-up of the 12 activists who are alleged to be part of a terrorist campaign when in fact they are well-known undercover investigators with an animal protection group called Igualdad Animal and other animal rights groups.
“In Finland there is the prosecution of undercover investigators who are facing lengthy prison sentences and, in Austria, a group of activists were involved in a criminal case nearly identical to a case in the US. Then, there is Germany and Sweden; the list goes on and on.
“In France, the rhetoric is beginning; this language of eco-terrorism. Now people who are blockading trains and trying to stop nuclear and mining operations are being regarded as terrorists in the press.”
In some US states, it is illegal to photograph or film factory farms and abattoirs, even from public property.
Environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered by the FBI to be the number-one domestic terrorism threat in the US, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.
The federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which was first passed in 2006, now turns activism into terrorism simply if it causes a company to lose profits. The legislation has been widened to bring in the element of “conspiracy” and to target activities perpetrated against any person or business with any connection to an “animal enterprise”. The law is no longer just about direct physical action against a lab or an actual animal enterprise.
Individual ag-gag laws have been passed in Iowa, Utah, Missouri, Montana and Idaho, and were debated in a dozen other states in 2013 and 2014, but were defeated. Several states have similar legislation, and six are aiming to introduce it.
The laws generally target undercover investigators, whistle-blowers and journalists in the following ways:
• They criminalise the undercover or covert surveillance of commercial animal facilities.
• They require that any footage obtained must be turned over to enforcement agencies immediately rather than given to animal protection groups or the media.
• They require potential employees of commercial animal facilities to disclose current or past ties to animal protection groups.
Will Potter says the precise details of the ag-ag legislation vary from state to state, but the effect is always the same: to deter activists and journalists from documenting the often horrific treatment and suffering of animals on factory farms and to obscure the truth about the source of our food.
These are laws, Potter says, “that single people out, not for violence, not even for property destruction or controversial protest, but for photographing and videotaping animal cruelty on factory farms”.
Potter says some of the laws have been on the books since the early 1990s, but were never used. “This new ag-gag wave is a reflection of the current cultural and political climate we’re in.” It’s now much easier to obtain footage and distribute it to millions of people on social media. Industry, Potter says, is “freaking out”.
Dozens of people have been charged under the new ag-gag laws, Potter says, but he doesn’t think the motivation is a high number of arrests. “It’s to instil fear through prosecution and send a message to the general public. As a journalist, that’s my primary concern; it’s what lawyers would call a chilling effect, meaning it makes people afraid of using their rights and I think that’s affected countless more.”
Potter is a plaintiff in two lawsuits, in Utah and Idaho, which are challenging ag-gag laws as unconstitutional. “I joined these lawsuits as a journalist because ag-gag directly puts both my sources and me at risk.”
In Idaho, Potter says, a group called Mercy for Animals filmed workers at the Bettencourt Dairies who were punching and kicking cows in the head and sexually abusing animals. “The investigation resulted in criminal convictions for animal cruelty, but the dairy industry’s response was not to clean up its act – it was to outlaw the footage.”
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association drafted Idaho’s new ag-gag law in response to the Bettencourt investigation. The dairymen say undercover video results in “media persecution” and “potential financial ruin”.
Undercover investigations, Potter said, led to the largest meat recall in US history when it was exposed that cows too sick to even walk, which in the industry are commonly referred to as “downers”, were entering the food supply.
Other examples of industrialised animal cruelty that Potter cites include the criminal prosecutions brought against workers who beat turkeys with pipes and batons, throwing them into cages and against the wall. “And workers in Wyoming were exposed punching and body-slamming baby piglets.”
An investigation conducted in early 2014 by The Humane Society of the United States exposed a case which caused a national outcry. At the Iron Maiden piggery in Kentucky, piglets too sick and diseased to move were being ground up and fed back to their living mothers, who were confined in gestation crates, which prevented them from turning around for their entire lives. “Within a week the industry had released an ag-gag proposal,” Potter said.
Another case exposed by Mercy for Animals is that of Sparboe Farms, the fifth-largest egg producer in the US. Hidden-camera footage revealed hens crammed into filthy battery cages and dead hens left to rot alongside birds still laying eggs for human consumption. The investigators also documented workers burning off the beaks of chicks without painkillers and throwing live birds into plastic bags and leaving them to suffocate.
The ag-gag backlash
During his recent speaking tour, Potter spoke about the Communication Management Units (CMUs) – two special prison units in Indiana and Illinois that house convicted political activists – and the FBI’s exaggeration in its reports of animal rights activists’ activities. He compares this with the very different reaction of the authorities to right-wing violence.
The agro industry is now claiming that all animal protection groups, including the Humane Society, are eco-terrorists, Potter says, “but there is no record of animal activists injuring a single human being in the US”.
The industry is killing between nine and ten billion animals every single year, just in the US, but it’s virtually unmonitored by any level of government, Potter points out.
He says that, for a long time, he thought the primary motivation behind ag-gag laws was protecting corporate profits, and he does think money is behind the industry’s attempts today. “But I also think something deeper is going on, and that’s a cultural battle over what it means to be human.”
The environmental and animal rights groups that are being targeted are defending particular values, Potter says, and we are being pushed to think about what those values truly represent and what our importance on the Earth actually is in relation to everything else.
Potter says he has drawn inspiration and strength from the fact that the ag-gag backlash has drawn together groups that formerly had no interaction. “They are all uniting with the message that if we allow this to happen to animal protection groups, which industry is going to use it next?”