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International Journalism
Fact Sheet on Foreign Press Credentials

What follows is some general advice on obtaining and using press credentials outside your own country, based on the experience of foreign correspondents. Remember that each country has different requirements. Some require no accreditation at all, while others try to make sure reporters are accompanied by information ministry officials nearly all the time. Remember, these are only general guidelines. There is no substitute for your own research on the countries you plan to visit.

The Basics

An assignment letter or letter of introduction is essential. It should be on company letterhead, signed by a senior editor or producer in the news organization, dated recently -- and be as specific as possible about the nature of your assignment. Lesser-known publications, broadcasters or Web sites might be wise to include some background to convince officials of the legitimacy of the news organization. Try to have several signed originals of the letter, since most officials do not like to receive copies and it may be required at numerous offices. If possible, address the letter to the specific department or official handling press credentials, but a“to whom it may concern” letter is usually acceptable. If your news organization has an official stamp or seal, use it on the letter; in some countries it can make a difference.

It helps to have an official identification card or press card issued by your news organization.

Do not take it personally if you are freelancing and cannot obtain a letter or credential from the place you usually publish. Some organizations, as a matter of policy, simply will not vouch for any but their own writers and photographers.

Press credentials from your local police department or some other organization are also helpful. Government agencies will often respect the official documents of other agencies. Make your intentions known and begin your research as far in advance as possible. Write or visit the local embassy of the country or countries you plan to visit. Even a business card from the ambassador can open some doors for you. Don’t neglect the government press office in the foreign capital. Seek advice from the U.S. embassy press officer in the country. Talk to a journalist working in the country, or someone who has recently been there. Inquire at the local press association, journalists’ union or foreign correspondents association; sometimes those groups handle accreditation rather than the government.

Work ahead to develop local contacts in the country where you will be reporting. Not only will it pay off in your news gathering, it will help you discover early on whether you need to provide local references to government officials. If you manage an interview with a big shot, get this person’s business card, too -- and don’t be afraid to show it.

In some cases, officials will ask for evidence of financial support. This is especially true on a long-term assignment. A line in the letter saying that your news organization will pay all expenses is usually sufficient, but some countries go so far as to require resident foreign correspondents to maintain a local bank account.

Be open and honest. It's usually best to inform the government (in some cases it’s an information ministry, sometimes an arm of the foreign ministry) upon your arrival that you plan to be working as a reporter. Find out beforehand whether you will need a special visa as a journalist. You don't want to be stuck at the airport or sent home on the next plane.

Get in touch with the press attaché of your own embassy when you arrive. They can often help with advice on local press rules.

In countries where the government might place restrictions on foreign reporters, you need to weigh those limitations against the consequences of being caught without proper accreditation. In the end it’s a decision only you can make, but when dealing with the police, armed forces or other officials it’s almost always better to have official accreditation.

Carry plenty of passport-sized photographs. Some countries require multiple accreditation applications, and each will require at least two photos. They aren’t always easy to obtain away from home.

Be flexible and patient, but persistent. In some countries, the first response to any journalist’s inquiry is,“It is not possible.” Good research and good sense can help you pass official roadblocks to good reporting.

Some Warnings

Beware of people or organizations that may try to sell you press credentials; such documents are almost always useless. A legitimate journalist should be able to get legitimate credentials. It’s best not to fake it.

Don’t expect free travel or other benefits from a press credential. The card simply identifies you as a working journalist -- and you undermine that status if you abuse the credential.

If you’re not traveling as a journalist, don’t pretend that you are. By misrepresentation you would endanger yourself and other legitimate professionals.

And once you have a credential, never lend it to anyone.

Prepared by Michael Collins of Oakland, Calif., an independent reporter and TV producer.

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