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Denied a Nieman, by the U.S.

For the first time, the U.S. has denied a journalist entry to participate in Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship program.

July 13, 2010|By Robert H. Giles

It is not uncommon for international journalists who come to Harvard University as Nieman fellows to be out of favor with their governments. They often work in countries where free expression and the rule of law exist in name only. They report in an atmosphere of danger where threats, and sometimes violence, are common tools to encourage self-censorship and silence truth-telling.

Colombian journalist Hollman Morris has long worked in challenging conditions, producing probing television reports that document his country's long and complex civil war. He has built contacts with the left-wing guerilla group known as the FARC and told stories of the conflict's victims. He has revealed abuses by the country's intelligence service and enraged government officials, including the president, Alvaro Uribe, who once called him "an accomplice to terrorism."

Morris was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in journalism this spring and planned to travel to the United States to begin his studies at Harvard in the fall. But then, last week, he was told by a U.S. consular official in Bogota that he was being denied a visa under the "terrorist activities" section of the Patriot Act.

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.

In the past, Morris has traveled to this country as a speaker at conferences and universities, and he has talked openly about his approach to journalism. In 2007, Human Rights Watch recognized his work by awarding him its annual Human Rights Defender Award.

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.

We observe international fellows as they return to their countries and see the compound-interest effect of their year at Harvard as it influences the development and politics of their countries. For U.S. fellows, the intimacy of the fellowship experience illuminates their understanding of people from other societies, discoveries that are especially relevant in an increasingly globalized world. Networks of Nieman fellows and professional alliances seeded at Harvard play significant roles in influencing local attitudes toward the United States.

In the spirit of this tradition, the U.S. government should welcome Hollman Morris, not ban him.

Robert H. Giles, former editor and publisher of the Detroit News, is curator of the Nieman Foundation.

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