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Reporters crossing borders face bureaucratic struggles

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From the Summer 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 33.

From the Summer 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 33.

By Lolita Guevarra

When a well-known Greek magazine editor was asked to speak at Columbia University, the U.S. Embassy denied his visa request the day of the event. In another case, a U.S. journalist missed an opportunity to cover a story in Nigeria because of administrative tie-ups in South Africa where she worked.

These cases are not isolated instances of the complex bureaucracy journalists from the United States and from other countries must negotiate to obtain a visa.

In May, six French journalists traveling to the United States to cover a video game trade show in California, were detained at Los Angeles International Airport and later sent back to France for not having a press visa.

“After September 11, we are much more cautious and we do want to continue to welcome people to the United States,” said Francisco Arcuate, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Immigrant and Customs Enforcement. “We are much more thorough and more careful about background checks.”

Instead of obtaining journalist visas, the French reporters tried to use Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from 27 countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or fewer without obtaining a visa. This program excludes “representatives of the foreign press, radio, film or other information media,” who must obtain non-immigrant media visas, also known as I Visas, according to the U.S. Department of State Web site.

After the six journalists detained in Los Angeles were told they did not have the correct visas, they were handcuffed and questioned — standard procedure, Arcuate told The Associated Press in May.

The international press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders asked the U.S. Embassy in Paris to investigate the matter. Taha Dowlatshahi, U.S. representative for the Paris-based press organization, said that the U.S. Embassy wrote back saying that “given the fact that these journalists didn’t have the correct visa, they were treated according to the law.”

“We always advise any foreigner to please check with the [U.S.] State Department or the U.S. Consulate nearest to the city,” Arcuate said. “They [foreigners] should always make sure they’re up to date with what the legal requirements are.”

The exclusion of media representatives from the Visa Waiver Program is not new, according to Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Shannon said that since its incorporation in 1986, the Visa Waiver Program’s yearly revision included nothing more than minor word changes.

When applying for the I Visa, journalists must complete a DS-157 form, pay the appropriate fee, include a passport or other travel documents, one color passport-type photo and various documents from the journalist’s employer legitimizing the journalist’s purpose in the United States.

But complying with the process and completing all paperwork does not mean a foreign reporter will be granted a visa.

In some cases, a journalists who hold conflicting views from U.S. standards may be denied a visa — even at the request of a U.S.-based organization, some press advocates say.

In February 2001, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism hosted an event, for which Christos Papoutsakis, publisher and editor of the Greek magazine, Anti, was slated as a featured speaker on a panel titled “Dissent Journalism: Greece, the CIA, and the USA.”

The U.S. Embassy denied Papoutsakis his I Visa on Feb. 1, 2001, the day he was to speak on the panel. Papoutsakis had applied for the visa more than 10 days earlier — more than enough time for the embassy to respond earlier, wrote Arthur Eisenberg, legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to Greece. But according to a response written to Eisenberg by Betsy Anderson, Consul General for the U.S. Embassy in Greece, the application had to be sent to the State Department for an advisory opinion, which caused the delay. Anderson said that the embassy was pursuing proper standards and regulations.

Eisenberg disagrees.

“They [embassy officials] were not in compliance with their own standards and regulations,” Eisenberg said. “The reason we [NYCLU] were concerned about this is because we felt it was an exclusion of foreign academics on ideological grounds.”

According to Eisenberg, the United States has many times before prohibited foreign academics who do not conform to the administration’s ideals from entering the country.

Such was the case with Ernest Mandel, a Belgian journalist and Marxian theoretician, who was asked to participate in various academic conferences in the United States. The Supreme Court decided in June 1972 that Mandel could be denied a visa under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that “[barred] those who advocate or publicize the economic, international, and governmental doctrines of world communism,” according to the court decision written by the late Justice Harry Blackmun.

Cases such as Mandel’s continued to occur during the Reagan Administration, according to Eisenberg.

In the case of Carlos Lauria, former correspondent for the Argentine newspaper Noticias, he was able to obtain a visa with no problem.

“It was not difficult because the company was big and well known,” Lauria said. As for renewing his visa while reporting in the United States, Lauria said that all he had to do was submit the proper forms to the State Department and he was sent a new visa.

U.S. reporters abroad

U.S. journalists covering events in foreign countries often meet with the same, or even more severe, restrictions.

In 2002, when New York Times South Africa Bureau Chief Rachael Swarns wanted to travel to Nigeria to cover a story, the process to obtain a visa took so long that a Times reporter from another country had to cover the story.

“Countries deal with visas variously,” Swarns said.

A 2001 New Republic article described the process for journalists obtaining visas to enter Iraq as a long and expensive one. In the article, Franklin Foer, reported that journalists going to Iraq had to write a series of letters and complete various documents for the Iraqi Embassy. Once the forms had been completed, four separate committees in Baghdad would review the information and decide whether the journalist would be allowed in Iraq. However, the only way journalists would find out if they were granted entry was to go to the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, Jordan.

In the New Republic article, National Public Radio’s Eric Weiner said he waited for weeks at the Amman InterContinental Hotel, walking every morning to the embassy.

U.S. journalists faced a similar predicament with Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban. Ghafar Osman, consular of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., said that for five years during the Taliban reign the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was closed. The only way journalists would be able to enter was through a neighboring country.

Now, journalists who want a visa for Afghanistan simply fill out a single form, provide a letter from the organization for which the journalist will be reporting and a U.S. passport.

Gwen Florio, national correspondent for The Denver Post, said when she applied for a visa for Afghanistan in November 2001 in Islamabad, Pakistan, the process took so many days that she flew to Berlin, Germany, and obtained a visa through the Northern Alliance Embassy in one day.

Florio advised other journalists to start the process early.

“Find another reporter who has been in the country and find out how they did it,” she said.

It is common for reporters to find themselves having to travel to more than one country to obtain a visa for a specific country.

“As soon as you land in your posting, find out how hard it is [to get a visa] and what is the process,” the Times’ Swarns said. She also said that keeping in hand the applications to all the countries to which a journalist might want to travel is good to do, so that when news breaks, a journalist is ready to quickly obtain the visa.