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Only journalists need visas for short-term business travel

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From the Fall 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27. When international journalists applied for media…

From the Fall 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.

When international journalists applied for media credentials to cover the G-20 Summit in September, the U.S. Department of State reminded them to also secure a media visa that has only been widely required since 2003.

Under the Bush Administration, the Department of Homeland Security began enforcing use of the media visa, which Congress created in 1952.

The original 1952 visa law created “B” visas for business and vacation travel as defined in section B of the visa statute in the U.S. Code. Visas for members of the media were called “I” visas, also named for its section in the code.

Congress created a visa-waiver program in 1986 for short-term tourists and business travelers who typically needed a visa. For years, this waiver was also informally applied to journalists.

In 2003, enforcement measures were tightened. In that year alone, customs officials detained or turned away at least nine foreign journalists who came to the United States to cover events ranging from government functions to video game conferences, according to media reports. In essence, the enforcement change targeted journalists as the only short-term business travelers who needed a visa.

In May 2004, Homeland Security announced it had issued guidance to its port directors that would allow a one-time pass to reporters who arrived at the border without the proper “I” visa, although it is unknown whether that policy is still in place.

Journalists planning to cover a story or event in the United States still do not qualify for the visa waiver program, said Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Joanne Ferreira. The State Department’s Web site for the Visa Waiver Program warns, “Foreign media representatives planning to engage in that vocation in the United States are not eligible for VWP travel, as the purpose of their stay does not qualify as ‘business.’”

Media visa applications require foreign journalists to provide proof of employment, which can range from an employer letter for staff writers and film crews to a contract and purpose statement for freelance journalists. The State Department issued 17,069 media visas and denied 1,759 applications in the 2008 fiscal year, according to Andy Laine, a State Department spokesman.

An official at the department said about 3,800 journalists applied for credentials to cover the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh this year, but he was unaware of any international journalists being turned away by customs officials.