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July 9, 2010, 8:15 a.m.

Colombian journalist Hollman Morris denied U.S. visa to be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard

It’s the time of year when the new class of Nieman Fellows starts arriving here in Cambridge, but we thought you should know about an unprecedented situation currently keeping one of our colleagues away. Hollman Morris Rincón, an independent journalist in Colombia, won a Nieman Fellowship this spring to study conflict negotiation strategies, international criminal court procedures, and the Rome Statute. I’ll just quote the AP:

BOGOTA, Colombia — The U.S. government has denied a visa to a prominent Colombian journalist who specializes in conflict and human rights reporting to attend a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University.

Hollman Morris, who produces an independent TV news program called “Contravia,” has been highly critical of ties between illegal far-right militias and allies of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Washington’s closest ally in Latin America.

The curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, which has offered the mid-career fellowships since 1938, said Thursday that a consular official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota told him Morris was ruled permanently ineligible for a visa under the “Terrorist activities” section of the USA Patriot Act.

Here’s a video of Hollman talking about human rights abuses in Colombia; here’s an interview from the Center for Investigative Reporting with Hollman and his brother and colleague Juan Pablo Morris about their work:

The Morris brothers take their cameras deep into the Colombian countryside to probe into the disappearance of thousands of individuals kidnapped over the past decade, and track efforts to unearth their graves far from the cosmopolitan capital city of Bogotá or the eyes of the international or global press. “Our aim,” Juan Pablo told us, “is to reconstruct the memory of those atrocities….Many of the people who followed the paramilitaries in the 1980s and 90s are running the country today.”

Contravia has uncovered links between paramilitary leaders and high officials in Colombian politics and finance. Thirty senators and representatives in the Colombian Congress have been imprisoned because of their ties to the paramilitary death squads; another sixty have been investigated. That’s a third of Colombia’s 268 member Congress, giving rise to a new term — ‘para-politica’ — to describe the ongoing crisis as one top politician after another is accused of complicity with the para-military squads. Most of those accused represent political parties that are part of the governing coalition led by President Alvaro Uribe.

Hollman Morris was given the Human Rights Defender Award by Human Rights Watch in 2007. He’s been forced to leave Colombia several times for extended periods after the airing of Contravía revelations. The show does not receive commercial backing; subsidies come from the Open Society Institute, the European Union and other international sources.

In February 2009, Contravía’s reporting prompted a denunciation by the government: Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, accused Hollman Morris on national radio of being “close to the guerillas,” after he conducted several interviews with FARC hostages who were later released. Uribe himself denounced Morris to the national press, and implied he was a member of the “intellectual bloc” of the FARC.

Santos is now the president-elect of Colombia and, ironically enough, was a Nieman Fellow himself while a newspaperman in the 1980s, alongside esteemed American journalists like Eugene Robinson, Gene Weingarten, and Eileen McNamara.

The independent website Colombia Reports reports on documents from April, allegedly from the Colombian security agency, that appear to call for surveillance and harassment of Hollman, including requesting “the suspension of visa.”

Obviously, we’re hoping this can be resolved. For decades, the Nieman Fellowships have brought journalists from around the world to Harvard to study and learn from one another in an atmosphere of open exchange. My boss, curator Bob Giles, has written to the State Department asking it to change its decision, and other forces are rallying in his support. I don’t know that we have many readers in Foggy Bottom, but if we do, we sincerely hope this won’t be the first time an American political decision has prevented a foreign journalist from studying with us.

POSTED     July 9, 2010, 8:15 a.m.
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