For a month, U.S. officials in Bogotá told Colombian journalist Hollman Morris that his request for a U.S. visa to study at Harvard as a prestigious Nieman Fellow had been denied on grounds relating to terrorist activities as defined by the U.S. Patriot Act, and that the decision was permanent and that there were no grounds for appeal. It was the first time in the storied history of the Nieman Foundation that a journalist had been prohibited from traveling not by his own nation, such as, say, South Africa’s apartheid regime back in 1960, but by ours, noted Nieman Curator Bob Giles in the Los Angeles Times.
A coalition of groups including the Nieman Foundation, Human Rights Watch, CPJ, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (where Morris was also a fellow), the Open Society Institute, the Knight Foundation, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, the Inter-American Press Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, PEN American Center, the Washington Office on Latin America, and the North American Congress for Latin America rallied to Morris’ defense, publicly and privately imploring U.S. agencies to reverse the decision. Last week, the multilateral Organization of American States also asked the State Department to grant Morris the visa.
Morris wrote this afternoon in an e-mail to the above groups: “I just got out of the U.S. Embassy and they gave me the visa.” He went on: “I am very happy, and I know none of this would have been possible without you.”
CPJ and other groups are happy, too. Although the month-long denial of the visa raises questions that remain unanswered. Such as: Did U.S. officials accept information provided by their Colombian counterparts without independently verifying the claims? Did U.S. officials follow Colombia’s lead by (albeit temporarily) red-baiting one of Colombia’s most respected and critical journalists?
After news of the U.S. visa denial broke in Colombia, more than a few callers on radio and television talks threatened Morris’ life saying the U.S. decision was confirmation of his alleged “terrorist” ties.
This is a charge has been levied against Morris before, by Colombian officials as high-ranking as President Alvaro Uribe, who has accused Morris of being “an accomplice of terrorism” over his reporting of the Colombia’s leftist guerrillas. But human rights groups suspect that senior Colombian officials have really lashed out at Morris over his reports on rightist paramilitary forces linked to senior Colombian government officials. At the same time, Morris was one of the Colombian journalists who was spied on and had phone calls and e-mails intercepted by Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security under the Uribe administration.
Morris has frequently visited the United States, including in 2007 when he received the Human Rights Defender Award from Human Rights Watch. Morris’ Nieman Fellowship at Harvard starts in the fall.