CPJ calls on Ridge to back reforms for foreign journalist visas

Dear Mr. Secretary:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that recent actions by the Department of Homeland Security have impeded access of foreign reporters to the United States, reversing long-standing U.S. government practice.

The detention and deportation of journalists from nations deemed “friendly” to the United States, and the aggressive and inappropriate questioning of those reporters send the wrong message to the world about U.S. commitment to press freedom and tolerance for international scrutiny.

CPJ calls on you to support legislative and other reforms that would facilitate short-term access to the United States for foreign journalists from nations deemed “friendly” by the Attorney General. We also urge you to ensure that U.S. port authorities do not ask inappropriate questions of journalists about sources and planned reporting.

In May 2003, the Department of Homeland Security changed the de facto entrance requirements for foreign journalists from the 27 nations deemed “friendly” to the United States. These journalists must now obtain an information media visa, also known as an I-visa, for even short-term entry of 90 days or less–this, even though other citizens from these same countries are eligible for a visa waiver for the same short-term visits.

These recent practices, however, run counter to the intent of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, whose provisions were designed to facilitate foreign journalists’ access to the United States. These enforcement changes have instead had a discriminatory effect against journalists; it is now more difficult for journalists from “friendly” nations to enter the United States than it is for other, non-journalist citizens from these same countries.

The Department of Homeland Security has maintained that it is merely enforcing the law in changing the de facto requirements, citing the language of both the Visa Waiver Program of 1986 and the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952. The Visa Waiver Program applies to non-immigrant visitors as defined by Section 101(a)(15)(B) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act; that section excludes from the non-immigrant category individuals “coming for the purpose of study or of performing skilled or unskilled labor or as a representative of foreign press, radio, film, or other foreign information media coming to engage in such vocation.”

For nearly 20 years, U.S. port authorities had interpreted the Visa Waiver Program to apply to all citizens, including journalists, from any of the 27 “friendly” nations seeking temporary U.S. entry of up to 90 days. But from May 2003 through May 2004, U.S. authorities at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) departed from the long-standing practice to deny entry to at least nine journalists from “friendly” nations, deporting each one. The journalists were detained with restraints, interrogated and subjected to body searches.

In May 2004, the U.S. Customs & Border Protection Bureau of the Department of Homeland Security announced that a “one-time” entrance waiver would be granted to foreign journalists seeking short-term entrance. Homeland Security agencies made this change after news reports circulated around the world describing the unnecessarily harsh treatment of journalists including Elana Lappin, a British reporter on assignment for the London daily newspaper, The Guardian.

While we are appreciative of this initial step, we respectfully remind you that the relevant provisions of Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 were enacted “for the avowed purpose of facilitating the exchange of information among nations, on a basis of reciprocity,” as noted by the legal scholar, Naomi Schorr, in the July 2001 issue of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin.

We ask you to support legislative and other reforms to facilitate foreign coverage of this country. One bill, HR 4823 introduced by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), would allow foreign journalists from the 27 “friendly” nations to enter the United States to report for no more than 90 days without the need for an I-visa,

Our concern about the detentions and deportations of the foreign journalists is compounded by the nature of their interrogation by U.S. authorities. In an article describing her May 3 interrogation, The Guardian’s Lappin said she was asked about the nature of her story and the sources she intended to interview. Australian journalist Sue Smethurst was detained and later deported after she arrived at LAX last November 14 to interview the singer Olivia Newton-John. According to a published account, Smethurst was asked what her story would say, when it would be published, and whether her publication ran politically sensitive material.

While we recognize that Customs and Border Patrol agents have a responsibility to screen all visitors, they should be instructed not to ask journalists about sources and the nature of their reporting. For a representative of the U.S. government to ask such questions discourages sources from speaking openly with foreign journalists, thereby having a chilling effect on their work.

Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director