Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department denied a visa to a foreign journalist selected for a yearlong Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. Hollman Morris, a well-known Colombian investigative reporter and documentary producer, was rebuffed on perplexing grounds.
The State Department, in its lone comment on the case, said Morris was denied due to a Patriot Act clause that bars entry into the U.S. by anyone who has engaged in loosely defined “terrorist activities.”
The Nieman Foundation, which has never had a fellow refused entry before, was shocked. So were a host of human rights and free press advocacy organizations, which have since been busy lobbying Hillary Clinton to reconsider.
The case seems like an anomaly — the result of, at best, a misjudgment or, at worst, the deliberate intervention of Colombian officials long hostile to Morris’ work. But taken in conjunction with a Supreme Court decision last month, the case could signal an evolving U.S. policy troublesome for journalists.
Morris has covered both sides of Colombia’s decades-long battle between right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerillas in the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (or FARC).
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“In order to be able to report on the conflict, you have to get sources from these groups,” said Carlos Lauria, senior program coordinator for the Americas with the Committee to Protect Journalists. “And Hollman Morris has done so. That’s part of his reporting.”
But this also appears to be what made him susceptible to accusations of “terrorist activities.” Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has publicly labeled Morris “an accomplice of terrorism,” conflating his contact with the FARC — which both the U.S. and Colombian governments consider a terrorist organization — with terrorism itself.
The accusation fits with what CPJ and Human Rights Watch have documented as a systematic public campaign to discredit Morris, whose investigations have also targeted the Colombian government. (CPJ and HRW also wrote to Uribe to say such accusations endanger Hollman’s life in a country where at least 43 journalists have been killed — through hostility from all sides — for their work since 1992.)
When the U.S. denied Hollman’s visa, it appears to have endorsed the view that proximity to terrorists might as well constitute joining them. As far as the clause in the Patriot Act is concerned, this is problematic for foreign conflict reporters who wish to come to the U.S.
For American journalists, the recent Supreme Court case Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project raises a similar concern. The 6-3 decision, delivered June 21, upholds a federal law that makes it a crime to provide “material support” to terrorist groups. The case was seen as a clash between First Amendment rights and national security — with the government’s interest in the latter winning out.
The Humanitarian Law Project sought to teach peaceful conflict resolution techniques to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, two groups officially considered terrorist organizations by the State Department. The court ruled that such advice — even when designed to foster peace — was not protected by the First Amendment.
Critics of the decision fear that this logic could equally affect American journalists and researchers whose work takes them into close contact overseas with alleged terrorists.
“Taken together,” said CPJ executive director Joel Simon of the Supreme Court and Hollman Morris cases, “those two things give the impression that there’s a U.S. government policy — or some portion of the U.S. government equates those two things — equating contact with terrorist groups in the context of legitimate news reporting with a form of terrorism.”
Such a policy would be at odds with the public interest, discouraging conflict reporting at precisely the moment when the “global war on terrorism” demands it.
Simon cautions that we still don’t know exactly why the State Department denied Morris. Officials did not cite the specific activities — or even that it was Morris’ work as a journalist — that raised flags (they have declined to give more details for privacy reasons).
“I think what we are dealing with is the widespread impression that that’s what they’re doing, and without any sort of clarification, that’s what people assume,” Simon said. “An assumption itself is dangerous. But if we later learn that the U.S. government has in fact made this equation, then obviously I would be deeply, deeply concerned by that.”