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July 14, 2010, 11 a.m.

An update on Colombian journalist Hollman Morris

I want to give you a quick update on the case of Hollman Morris, the Colombian journalist whose visa application has been rejected by the U.S. government. Hollman was set to come here to Harvard for the next year under a Nieman Fellowship. He has produced journalism critical of the Colombian government, and that appears to have been a factor in why the State Department took the extraordinary step of preventing an honored journalist from entering the country.

My boss, Nieman Foundation curator Bob Giles, wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times explaining why the State Department should reverse its decision. Read the whole thing, but here are a couple excerpts:

In the 60 years that foreign journalists have participated in the Nieman program, they have sometimes had trouble getting their own countries to allow them to come. The foundation’s first brush with the harsh reality of journalism under repressive regimes came in 1960, when Lewis Nkosi, a black South African and writer for Drum, a magazine for black South Africans, was awarded a fellowship. His application for a passport was denied by the country’s apartheid government. Angry and bitter, he applied for an exit visa. It enabled him to leave, but he was forbidden to ever return.

Morris, though, is the first person in Nieman history to be denied the right to participate not by his own country but by ours. The denial is alarming. It would represent a major recasting of press freedom doctrine if journalists, by establishing contacts with so-called terrorist organizations in the process of gathering news, open themselves to accusations of terrorist activities and the possibility of being barred from travel to the United States.

[…]

The Nieman Foundation invites foreign journalists to join its class of fellows, in part because it is good for the U.S. participants to gain an international perspective, but also as a way of rewarding and nurturing excellence in foreign journalism. During the struggle to remove racial barriers in South Africa, Nieman Fellowships were awarded annually to South African journalists, who carried democratic and journalistic values home with them. Many went on to brazenly employ their editorial leadership to challenge the government and help bring an end to apartheid.

Several endangered journalists have come to the Nieman program from Colombia, where 43 journalists have been killed since 1992. In 2000, Ignacio Gomez, a young investigative reporter, was forced to flee after his newspaper, El Espectador, published stories in which Colombian police and military were linked with violent right-wing paramilitaries. In one of the stories, a Colombian military colonel was said to have masterminded the 1997 massacre in Mapiripan, in which right-wing paramilitaries killed nearly 30 people for allegedly supporting left-wing guerrillas. Gomez received hundreds of death threats after that article was published.

The Nieman Foundation program has been a safe, if temporary, refuge for foreign journalists like Hollman Morris, who are targets because they have challenged dictators and privileged oligarchs. Their experiences inspire others in the fellowship and beyond, and contribute to a greater appreciation of our constitutional guarantees of press freedom. It makes no sense that the U.S. government would intervene to prevent a journalist access to learning about the freedoms we so cherish.

The effort to let Hollman come to this country has gained support from both the journalism and human rights communities. The Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton yesterday outlining its belief that the visa rejection “damages U.S. interests in Latin America and increases risks for Morris in Colombia.” They also point to their February report on attacks on the Colombian press, which highlighted Hollman’s case:

Hollman Morris, a reporter known for his critical coverage of the country’s civil conflict, came under fire from the government after he traveled to southwestern Colombia to interview guerrilla fighters for a documentary on kidnappings. On February 1, Morris said, members of the leftist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) urged him to interview three police officers and a soldier who were being held hostage. The journalist told CPJ that once he realized the hostages’ answers had been coerced, he simply asked for their names and their time in captivity. The same day, FARC released the four hostages to a humanitarian mission led by the International Red Cross.

As news of Morris’ meeting with the hostages was reported, the government reacted in forceful, rapid-fire fashion. Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón said Morris had acted without “objectivity and impartiality.” Then-Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos called him “close to the guerrillas.” And Uribe accused the journalist of being an “accomplice to terror.”

Morris told CPJ that the accusations triggered a string of e-mail threats. On February 5, CPJ and Human Rights Watch sent Uribe a letter objecting to the loaded assertions and urging the president to put an end to comments tying journalists to any side in Colombia’s armed conflict. CPJ research has shown that such public assertions have endangered journalists. The government has often resorted to such politicized accusations, the New York-based group Human Rights First said at a March hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Colombian prosecutors, the group said, have brought dozens of unfounded and “specious” criminal investigations against Colombians, including journalists and human rights activists.

The documentarian Alex Gibney wrote a post for The Atlantic about Hollman and included a video he had shot about Hollman for Human Rights Watch. I’ve embedded the video above.

The Boston Globe had a piece noting the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ call for Hollman to be allowed into the country. Michele Salcedo, NAHJ’s president, told the Globe: “Our government in the past has seen fit to acknowledge his very strong journalistic work, but yet we have denied his visa.”

Colombia Reports notes that the Inter-American Press Association has also called for the visa decision to be reversed and points to an article in the Colombian daily El Espectador on the situation.

And finally, this Washington Post story from a few days ago, by Juan Forero in Bogotá:

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — In his work reporting on this country’s drug-fueled conflict, Colombian journalist Hollman Morris has met frequently with high-ranking American officials and been received at agencies from the State Department to the Pentagon.

In January, it was a lunch with State’s No. 2, James B. Steinberg, at the residence of the American ambassador in Bogota. A few months before that, he had met Daniel Restrepo, senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, to discuss alleged abuses by Colombia’s secret police.

But when Morris sought a U.S. student visa so he could take a fellowship for journalists at Harvard University, his application was denied.

POSTED     July 14, 2010, 11 a.m.
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