- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Homeland Security Department is allowing some foreign journalists who do not have proper visas one-time entry into the United States after receiving complaints from trade organizations and reporters, two dozen of whom were detained and deported last year.

“We definitely feel that it is clamping down on freedom of the press,” said Tala Dowlatshahi, the U.S. representative of Reporters Without Borders. “A country that teaches democracy inside and outside its border must make sure reporters are treated in a democratic fashion.”

Foreign journalists have always been required to obtain a separate visa specifically for reporters, but after the September 11 terrorist attacks custom officials cracked down and asked tougher and more extensive questions, said Bill Strassberger, Homeland Security Department spokesman.

“In the past, they may have been able to get by and the right questions were not asked; but now there is greater security at the borders,” Mr. Strassberger said.

“It does sound like an overbearing bureaucracy. But in reality, there are specific visas for different reasons and when they come to the U.S., they are expected to follow the rules. There is a logical reason for it, but not everyone agrees with it.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, 15 writers reported being searched numerous times — some strip searched — handcuffed, detained over night and deprived of sleep by customs officials.

Several of the reporters were from Britain, France, Sweden and Holland, who historically have entered the United States via the visa-waiver program, which grants access to visitors from 27 countries designated as “friendly.”

Journalists will now be allowed a one-time entry, but they must apply for a visa designed specifically for reporters before their second visit.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) requested the visa reprieve, saying many foreign journalists unknowingly enter this country illegally while others are stopped at customs and treated like criminals before being returned to their home countries.

“The result they say is an unnecessary hardship for the journalists, and unnecessary embarrassment for the U.S.” said a statement from the organization. Attempts to contact SPJ for comment were unsuccessful.

SPJ became involved after six French journalists planning to cover a video game trade show were detained, handcuffed, fingerprinted, searched and held overnight in holding cells then deported to France.

According to Reporters Without Borders, three of the journalists were held for 26 hours, repeatedly questioned and body searched six times; one journalist said he was told by a government official he would never be allowed back in the country.

Elena Lappin, a free-lance reporter for the British daily newspaper the Guardian, said she had traveled several times to the United States under the visa waiver program. On May 3, however, she was taken into custody by customs officials for twenty-six hours, questioned about whom she planned to interview, handcuffed, strip-searched, and driven 20 miles downtown to a holding facility where she spent a sleepless night on a steel bench inside a cell.

“Somewhere along the way, in the process of protecting itself against genuine threats, the U.S. has lost the ability to distinguish between friend and foe. The price this powerful country is paying for living in fear is the price of its civil liberties,” Mrs. Lappin wrote of her experience in the June 5 edition of the Guardian.

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