ASJA Protests USA Visa Requirements for Foreign Journalists

New York, July 7 – The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) has protested a U.S. government policy that requires foreign journalists entering the country to obtain special visas that may or may not be granted depending on the ideology of the journalist and his or her news organization.

ASJA, the nation’s leading organization of independent non-fiction writers, made the protest in a letter to Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The letter, signed by Claire Safran, chair of the ASJA’s First Amendment Committee, said it was “contrary to the letter and spirit of the First Amendment” to require visas of journalists. The visa requirement, which has been on the books for years but was seldom enforced until recently, has led to the detention and deportation of 15 foreign journalists who arrived without visas. In some cases, the journalists (all from countries friendly to the United States) were strip-searched, handcuffed and incarcerated.

The letter notes that only dictatorships and repressive regimes require visas or special licenses for journalists entering their countries. “It’s appalling that we’re in the company of North Korea and a handful of other rogue nations in stifling the freedom of the foreign press,” said ASJA President Lisa Collier Cool.

Following protests to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary Ridge, the U.S. Customs & Border Protection bureau granted a one-time entrance waiver for journalists from 27 friendly nations who arrive in the United States without the required the special “I” visa. Non-journalists from the same countries also have a one-time waiver but must obtain visas for subsequent trips.

Requiring special visas for journalists “brings with it a hint of licensing, something that has always been anathema in free and open societies,” the ASJA said in the letter. The organization urged Secretary Ridge to “restore us to the free and open fellowship of democracies by waiving this pernicious requirement.”

The Letter

Dear Secretary Ridge:

The recent reports of foreign journalists being detained at U.S. airports and then deported for lack of a special visa are of deep concern to the members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the national organization of leading non-fiction journalists.

We find it contrary to the letter and spirit of the First Amendment to require special visas of journalists, especially when other travelers from the same nations may enter without any visa at all. We understand that these detentions and deportations of journalists are based on an obscure provision in immigration law, a provision that was seldom if ever enforced until the Immigration and Naturalization Service was placed under the aegis of your department.

At a time when we are working to safeguard our country against further acts of terrorism, we agree that the U.S. needs to be newly vigilant over our security. To our knowledge, though, none of the journalists who’ve been detained and at times strip-searched have been accused of being terrorism suspects. Indeed, they tend to be not from nations that have supported terror but from nations that are historically friendly to the United States, such nations as England, Sweden, The Netherlands and France.

In response to protests from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders, we understand that an advisory has been issued, allowing “nonthreatening” reporters to enter the country without a visa — but only for a one-time visit. This hardly solves the problem, especially for journalists who, like other travelers, may want to visit more than once. Worse yet, it puts government officials in the position of deciding who is a journalist. Special visas for journalists brings with it a hint of licensing for journalists, something that has always been anathema in free and open societies.

Until now, it was only dictatorships and oppressive regimes that required special visas and/or licenses for journalists to cross their borders. The United States does not belong in that unsavory company, and we urge you to restore us to the free and open fellowship of democracies by waiving this pernicious requirement.


Claire Safran
Chair, First Amendment Committee