In U.S., Dangerous Misconceptions from TSA Poster

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.

Back in 2004, Iraqi gunmen loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr abducted U.S. freelance photographer Paul Taggert because, as they later told The Associated Press, they thought he was a spy. Now, a new poster from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration reinforces dangerous misconceptions by depicting a photographer as a terrorist.

“Don’t let our planes get into the wrong hands,” reads the poster’s caption beneath an image of a man holding a camera with a telescopic lens pointed through the chain-link fence of an airport. The poster comes a year after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano went on Fox News and urged viewers to be suspicious. “If they see, for example, somebody continually taking photographs of a piece of critical infrastructure that doesn’t seem to make any sense.”

The National Press Photographers Association sent a letter on Monday to Napolitano, asking her to order U.S. security authorities to remove the poster from display. “It is my understanding that airport administrators have been directed to post and prominently display this material around airports ‘one poster per entrance,'” stated NPPA General Counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher, who signed the letter. “I would have hoped that DHS and TSA would have been more sensitive to free speech concerns after your statement last year on Fox News regarding photography.”

Worldwide, photographers are regularly detained and harassed for doing their job. And that’s true in the United States as well. Lance Rosenfeld was on assignment this year for ProPublica and the PBS program “Frontline,” taking photographs related to the Gulf oil spill, when he fell under suspicion. Rosenfeld was detained in July near BP’s refinery in Texas City, Texas by police and released only after authorities reviewed his images and collected his personal identification information, which they then shared with BP, the company whose off-shore drilling resulted in the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“In any free country, the balance between actual vigilance and overzealous enforcement is delicate,” the photographers association wrote last year to Napolitano. “It is one thing for DHS to act when there is probable cause; it is quite another to abuse that discretion in order to create a climate that chills free speech under the pretext of safety and security. It is our position that the material targeted at the general aviation community does just that.”

Hollman Morris, Labeled ‘Terrorist,’ Finally Harvard-bound

Original Story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists’  blog.

For a month, U.S. officials in Bogotá told Colombian journalist Hollman Morris that his request for a U.S. visa to study at Harvard as a prestigious Nieman Fellow had been denied on grounds relating to terrorist activities as defined by the U.S. Patriot Act, and that the decision was permanent and that there were no grounds for appeal. It was the first time in the storied history of the Nieman Foundation that a journalist had been prohibited from traveling not by his own nation, such as, say, South Africa’s apartheid regime back in 1960, but by ours, noted Nieman Curator Bob Giles in the Los Angeles Times.

A coalition of groups including the Nieman Foundation, Human Rights Watch, CPJ, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (where Morris was also a fellow), the Open Society Institute, the Knight Foundation, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, the Inter-American Press Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, PEN American Center, the Washington Office on Latin America, and the North American Congress for Latin America rallied to Morris’ defense, publicly and privately imploring U.S. agencies to reverse the decision. Last week, the multilateral Organization of American States also asked the State Department to grant Morris the visa.

Morris wrote this afternoon in an e-mail to the above groups: “I just got out of the U.S. Embassy and they gave me the visa.” He went on: “I am very happy, and I know none of this would have been possible without you.”

CPJ and other groups are happy, too. Although the month-long denial of the visa raises questions that remain unanswered. Such as: Did U.S. officials accept information provided by their Colombian counterparts without independently verifying the claims? Did U.S. officials follow Colombia’s lead by (albeit temporarily) red-baiting one of Colombia’s most respected and critical journalists?

After news of the U.S. visa denial broke in Colombia, more than a few callers on radio and television talks threatened Morris’ life saying the U.S. decision was confirmation of his alleged “terrorist” ties.

This is a charge that has been levied against Morris before, by Colombian officials as high-ranking as President Alvaro Uribe, who has accused Morris of being “an accomplice of terrorism” over his reporting of the Colombia’s leftist guerrillas. But human rights groups suspect that senior Colombian officials have really lashed out at Morris over his reports on rightist paramilitary forces linked to senior Colombian government officials. At the same time, Morris was one of the Colombian journalists who was spied on and had phone calls and e-mails intercepted by Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security under the Uribe administration.

Morris has frequently visited the United States, including in 2007 when he received the Human Rights Defender Award from Human Rights Watch. Morris’ Nieman Fellowship at Harvard starts in the fall.