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Probe of Foreign Reporters' Detention Sought

Nine French and English journalists were stopped at LAX and later expelled.

May 24, 2003|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

A journalists group, Reporters Without Borders, is demanding an investigation into the treatment of nine French and British journalists who were detained as they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport and then expelled from the country.

The journalists, who flew into Los Angeles on May 10 and 11 to cover a video games trade show, were ordered to return home because they lacked proper visas, according to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

Each was held in a downtown detention facility for about 24 hours while awaiting return flights to Europe. All were prohibited from attending the conference.

Reporters Without Borders, a France-based advocacy group, has protested the expulsions and demanded an inquiry.

"These journalists were treated like criminals -- subjected to several body searches, handcuffed, locked up and fingerprinted," the group's secretary general, Robert Menard, wrote Tuesday to the U.S. ambassador to France.

The journalists -- six French and three English -- had attempted to use the Visa Waiver Program, which allows tourists and businesspeople to enter the United States for 30 days without a visa. Customs officials said the journalists should have obtained I-Visas, documents specifically for members of foreign media. The media visas do not have an expiration period.

On Friday, customs officials disputed the claim that the journalists had been singled out for harsh treatment and said the nine had been treated by the book.

"These people didn't have the proper paperwork; it's as simple as that," said Mike Fleming, a spokesman for the customs bureau.

"We don't want to do anything to abuse press freedoms."

Ana Hinojosa, interim port director for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection at LAX, said Reporters Without Borders had mischaracterized the journalists' treatment by saying they were "subject to interrogation sessions and six body searches."

"Once there was a question on their admissibility, we conducted a thorough interview," Hinojosa said. Also, the reporters were given pat-down searches as they were moved from the airport terminal to a detention center or other areas, Hinojosa said, but were never asked to disrobe.

The reporters were held overnight because, Hinojosa said, their airlines were responsible for their return flights and all but one had to wait until the following day for a flight. Hinojosa said it is also the bureau's policy to handcuff detainees during transport.

Hinojosa said that if the journalists had attended the conference as tourists instead of reporters, they could have used the Visa Waiver Program and been allowed to stay.

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