BBC journalist questioned by US border agents, devices searched

New York, February 1, 2017–Customs and Border Protection officers should respect the rights of journalists to protect confidential information when subjecting international reporters to screening on their arrival to the U.S., the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Ali Hamedani, a reporter for BBC World Service, told CPJ that border agents detained him at Chicago O’Hare airport for over two hours and questioned him when he arrived in the U.S. on January 29 to interview a Persian singer. The journalist, who said he was traveling on a Media I Visa, told CPJ that agents searched his phone and computer and read his Twitter feed.

Hamedani told CPJ that when he traveled to the U.S. on the same visa in November he did not have any issues at the border.

The detention of the British-Iranian journalist came two days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning entry to the U.S. for 90 days for individuals from seven countries, including Iran.

Kris Grogan, the public affairs officer for Customs and Border Protection, sent CPJ links to sections of the agency’s website about the inspection of electronic devices and the executive order. His email did not include a response to CPJ’s request for comment about Hamedani’s case and whether the screening was related to Trump’s executive order.

Separately, Mohammed Tawfeeq, an editor and producer at CNN, was subjected to secondary screening at Atlanta airport on January 29, according to reports. Tawfeeq, an Iraqi who is a legal permanent resident of the U.S., has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the president’s executive order was used to unlawfully detain him, reports said. Defendants named in the suit include the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of State, the Guardian reported.

“Journalists must be able to enter the U.S. without fear that their phones and computers will be searched and that sensitive information, including source details, will be compromised,” said Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Journalists’ ability to do their jobs depends on their ability to protect confidential sources.”

Iraqi lawmakers have already indicated their desire to implement a reciprocal ban, although it is unclear from news reports whether their January 30 vote is binding.

“A series of tit-for-tat travel restrictions could severely restrict journalists’ ability to work and impede the flow of information across borders,” Lauría said.

Hamedani told CPJ that officers pulled him aside for screening after he showed his U.K. passport, which lists his birthplace as Iran, at the immigration desk. He said that Customs and Border Protection officers ordered him to unlock his phone. Hamedani tweeted about his experience while he was held and gave an account of his experience to BBC Radio 5 Live. He told the BBC that officers read his Twitter account for his political views and asked whether he had served in the military in Iran.

Hamedani said the experience brought back memories of being in Iran. He was arrested there in 2009 because he worked for the BBC, he said. “Last time I was in Iran, I was arrested and the interrogator grabbed my phone and started reading my text messages,” he told CPJ. He said has not returned to Iran since.

In the days following Trump’s executive order there was confusion among border agents and U.S. embassies over whether the ban would apply to dual nationals, according to reports. Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner for the U.S. Custom and Border Protection, told the press yesterday that travelers will be assessed based on the passport they present.

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said in a press conference yesterday that extra vetting procedures were being discussed, including possibly asking officials to examine the phone contacts and social media posts of people entering the U.S., according to reports.

Some international journalists have told CPJ they faced additional screening at the U.S. border since the passage of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. At the request of the journalists, details of many of these incidents have not been made public.