In May, nine legitimate journalists were stopped while trying to enter a country. They were repeatedly questioned, fingerprinted, searched, handcuffed and held overnight in cells. Then they were deported to their countries of origin without being given a chance to appeal the decision, or even to apply for a temporary visa on the spot.
The country? The United States. The reason the journalists were here? To cover a video game conference.
The important point to note is that these journalists did not set off any other warning bells – besides, of course, the fact that they were journalists. They were from friendly countries: France and Great Britain. If they had been accountants or lawyers or regular tourists, they would have waltzed right in, no visa required.
But, being journalists, they were immediately disqualified from entering the country.
Michel Perrot works for TV Hebdo, the French TV Guide. As a French citizen, he is used to making short-term trips to the United States without a visa. About 10 years ago, the U.S. Congress passed the Visa Waiver Program law, which allows visitors to come to the United States for business or pleasure for stays of less than 90 days without requiring a visa.
During previous visits, Perrot said, speaking on the phone from France, he told customs officials he was a journalist, and readily entered the country.
In fact, he passed through customs without a problem again this May. He told officials he was a reporter, here for the biggest video game exhibition in the world, the E3.
“I was not stopped,” he said. “But my colleague, working for another TV guide, had a problem. The customs said, ‘It was a problem for him, not for you.’ And we said, ‘If it’s a problem for him, it’s a problem for us.’ Solidarity, you know? And so, it was a problem for all of us.”
Altogether, six French journalists were detained – even though four of them were originally able to walk through customs.
It was the inconsistent application of the visa law that most upset Perrot – the fact that some journalists were able to come in and others, seemingly arbitrarily, were not.
If a journalist were to look up the requirements for the Visa Waiver Program, it would seem as if he or she would easily qualify. On the government’s official Web site, for example, at www.immigration.gov, there is nothing in the Visa Waiver Program section that specifically disqualifies journalists, as they would seem to fall into the “business” portion of the business or pleasure qualification. It takes further research to determine that “business” is specifically defined to exclude journalism.
The other French journalists were Alexandre Alfonsi of Télé 7 Jours; Stéphanie Pic of Télé Poche; Thierry Falcoz, editor in chief of Game One cable television; and two of his cameramen, Laurent Patureau and Alex Gorsky.
“We said, ‘Can we wait and call the consulate and get the visa?’ and they said the nearest space to get a visa was Paris, so you need to go back to Paris to get the visa,” Perrot said.
After the journalists were denied entry, they were handcuffed and searched.
“It was very efficient, not violent,” Perrot recalled. For example, they were not forced to take off their clothes. “But every time we left one place for another, they made a search. We were handcuffed, and they took off my shoelaces at the beginning and only gave them back when we got on the plane back to France.”
Perrot added that they were lucky because they arrived on KLM, which had a flight back the next day. The same airline that brings visitors in has to take them back if they are denied entry.
“If we were traveling on a charter or something like that, we might have had to wait for a week,” he said.
Perrot doesn’t have a grudge against Americans, he said, but he is worried about being able to enter the United States again. If a person is ever denied entry, for any reason, it makes it difficult to enter the country in the future.
“I want to go see some friends in Washington this summer,” he said. “I’m not sure if I can go. I called the consulate and they said it could be a problem.”
Ana Hinojosa, interim port director at Los Angeles International Airport for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection of the Department of Homeland Security, confirmed that six French journalists were detained and then expelled in separate groups on May 9 and 10. She said that they were not singled out because they were French, and that three British journalists were also expelled at the same time.
“They came in and applied for admission under the Visa Waiver Program and because representatives from foreign media are specifically excluded from being able to participate in the program, they were not allowed to participate,” she said.
She did not explain why four of the journalists were first allowed to enter the country, explaining that a person isn’t officially considered to be in the country until they have completely exited the area.
“We have a multilayer enforcement process,” she said. “We have a primary area where we do an initial review and then a secondary review where people get their bags. Persons are not considered admitted until they leave the federal inspection service area.”
Hinojosa insisted that all journalists attempting to enter under the Visa Waiver Program are denied entry, and that this has happened before.
“We do have instances throughout the year, where journalists may come in without the proper visa and may be refused admission,” she said, but could not name exact instances.
The Paris-based international organization Reporters Without Borders has written letters of protest about the deportation of the French journalists.
“These were arbitrary acts,” said Tala Dowlatshahi, the U.S. representative for the organization. “We’re asking for an immediate, independent inquiry.”
The official monitoring media freedoms for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has also asked the United States to explain why American immigration authorities detained and expelled the six French journalists.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Freimut Duve wrote, “As you know, the United States, as an OSCE participating state, is a signatory to OSCE commitments in the field of freedom of expression.”
These commitments include the Helsinki Final Act that deals with freedom of movement for journalists, he added, and the 1991 Moscow Meeting, which states that “participating states … will … take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession.”
U.S. officials denied that they were being arbitrary, however.
“This is a normal procedure,” said Jo-Anne Prokopowicz, a State Department press officer. “This is something that’s been practiced for years.”
According to Kelly Shannon, public affairs officer for the consular affairs office of the State Department, the reason that journalists are unable to enter the country under the Visa Waiver Program – as all other professionals are allowed to do – is that they are specifically excluded from the definition of “business or pleasure.”
“If a person comes and says that they’re coming here for a convention and doesn’t say they’re a journalist, they’re misrepresenting themselves and breaking the law,” she said.
So far this year, she said, 6,982 journalism visas were issued, out of a total of 7,372 applied for. Last year, 18,187 journalists received visas, out of a total of 18,791 applications. But Shannon could not say how many of these visas, if any, were for short-term trips. Journalism visas are routinely issued for the maximum period allowed. French journalists, for example, typically receive a 90-month multiple-entry I-Visa.
According to immigration attorney Gregory McCall, of Seattle-based Perkins Coie LLP, the reason that journalists don’t get to enjoy the benefits of the Visa Waiver Program could be a historical accident.
Originally adopted in 1986, the program replaced short-term business and tourism visas for visitors from friendly countries. But there were no short-term journalism visas.
Ironically, when it comes to applying for long-term visas, journalists are better off than members of other professions.
“Other business people, a businessman or woman who is transferred here from some conglomerate, for example, have to go through a fairly extensive and rigorously involved process,” McCall said. Journalists only need to go to the consulate with an assignment letter.
“They’re issued a visa relatively quickly, relatively easily, and with less scrutiny than the other business people,” he said.
If the Department of Homeland Security starts to strictly to enforce the visa rules, it will encourage foreign journalists to cheat and claim to be tourists, said British journalist Tim Gopsill.
“America is a country which is supposed to have a reputation for press freedom,” he said. “It’s one of the points about the USA that is appreciated by people.”
Treating journalists more harshly than everyone else is something that totalitarian regimes do, said Gopsill, who is the editor of “The Journalist,” a publication of the U.K.’s National Union of Journalists.
The Society of Professional Journalists has called for immediate extension of the Visa Waiver Program to journalists.
“Doing otherwise does nothing to improve the nation’s security and hurts its standing in the world community,” said Robert Leger, SPJ president and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “Furthermore, it encourages similar restrictions in other countries and makes it harder for U.S. journalists to work overseas.”
It also gives the impression that the United States considers reporters to be higher security risks than tourists or members of other professions, the SPJ said in a statement.
Maria Trombly is the chair of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee and a columnist for Securities Industry News. She is based in western Massachusetts.