Confused by tougher enforcement procedures, an increasing number of foreign journalists traveling from Europe and Australia have been detained and refused entry at U.S. airports in recent months, provoking concern and consternation here and abroad.
Though the numbers have been small — about 30 — international journalist groups say the incidents raise questions about whether the Bush administration’s war on terrorism could be used to limit foreign media access to the world’s superpower and, in retaliation, the U.S. media’s access to foreign countries.
“It would be absolutely of no surprise if countries began to apply a reciprocal approach to the U.S. on their treatment of journalists,” said Chris Warren, president of the International Federation of Journalists. “That would be terribly unfortunate, because people still look to the United States for examples of democratic practice.”
When Rachael Bletchly flew from London’s Heathrow Airport to Los Angeles International Airport in mid-October, the associate editor of Britain’s People magazine assumed she would pass through customs as she did in previous trips to interview Hollywood celebrities.
But once in customs, Bletchly was taken to an inspection office and told she was being detained because she did not have an I-visa.
Handcuffed and searched
Over the next 27 hours, the reporter was fingerprinted twice, photographed, handcuffed, given a body search, prevented from making telephone calls and bused to a separate detention hall to stay overnight before being sent back to London. She did not get to do her interview with the girlfriend of Frank Bruno, the former heavyweight boxing champ from Britain.
“I have no quibble with getting a certain visa, but they should be able to distinguish between me and a terrorist. There was just no reason to detain me overnight and treat me as badly as they did,” Bletchly said.
Back in London, Bletchly is now well aware that U.S. Customs and Border Inspection officials are requiring all foreign journalists to have an I-visa. In interviews with journalists from Denmark, Austria, Australia and England, it apparently was customary in past years for foreign media visiting the U.S. for less than 90 days to enter with only a passport. Citizens from one of 27 countries, mostly in Europe and East Asia, qualify to travel under a 1986 Visa Waiver program, part of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
The I-visa applies to anyone entering the U.S. 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.”
But since March 1, when the Customs Department was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, customs officials have taken a harder line, said journalist and immigration groups.
“It’s fair to say that since INS was absorbed into Homeland Security, we’ve definitely seen a stricter policy on detentions,” said Archie Pyati, an asylum attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
Media groups in the U.S. and abroad have long protested their exclusion from the Visa Waiver program.
“That journalist is the only profession excluded is curious and runs counter to the best of U.S. values of democracy,” said Johann Fritz, director of the International Press Institute.
Jim Michie, public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said no new orders were issued for stricter enforcement of the I-visa requirement. Rather, customs monitoring has been tightened across the board since the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said.
“The numbers of people sent back are in the minority,” Michie said. “Most foreign journalists know they need an I-visa.”
Peter Krobath, editor of the Austrian movie magazine Skip, held a five-year I-visa during the mid-1990s. When it expired, he traveled to the U.S. using just his Austrian passport.
But in early December, when Krobath arrived at Los Angeles’ airport to interview actor Ben Affleck and film director John Woo about their involvement in the movie “Paycheck,” he was detained, handcuffed and taken to a downtown holding facility. There, he spent the night in a room with about 45 other men sleeping on steel cots.
Sue Smethurst, 30, an associate editor of the Australian women’s magazine New Idea, had traveled to the U.S. “two or three times a year for the last eight years” on her passport. But in mid-November on her way to interview Olivia Newton-John for a story about breast cancer, she was taken by three armed security guards to an overnight detention room before being sent back to Melbourne.
“If I hadn’t said I was a journalist, I would have passed right through,” Smethurst said.
U.S. officials said the detentions could easily have been avoided had the foreign journalists simply obtained the necessary immigration documents.
But the evolution from what was once a gray area marked by discretion to bold demarcations of black and white has unified journalism organizations around a campaign to allow reporters from any of the 27 “friendly countries” to enter the country without an I-Visa.
After Krobath’s Dec. 2 detention, the press institute wrote letters of protest to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Secretary of State Colin Powell asking that discretion be used for a visiting journalist found to lack an I-Visa. The American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Inter-American Press Association have taken up similar efforts.
In the meantime, journalist groups remain concerned that other countries could use the recent detentions as cover for imposing similar restrictions within their borders.