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SPJ calls for immediate extension of Visa Waiver Program to journalists


Maria Trombly, SPJ International Journalism Committee Chair, 212/931-0152 or maria@trombly.com
Robert Leger, SPJ President, 417/836-1113 or rleger@spj.org

-- The Society of Professional Journalists today called on the federal immigration service to make it as easy for foreign journalists to enter the United States for a short stay as for any other traveler.

Under the Visa Waiver Program, visitors from 27 friendly countries may enter the United States for business or pleasure without a visa if they intend to stay for less than 90 days. Journalists, however, are required to obtain a visa.

This inequity led to incidents on May 10 and 11 in Los Angeles, when six French journalists on their way to cover a video game trade show were denied entry into the United States. Four of these journalists were initially allowed to pass through customs but were detained after they returned to inquire about their colleagues. The journalists were handcuffed, fingerprinted, searched, and held overnight in holding cells before being sent back to France.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, three British journalists were similarly sent home.

“It is unconscionable that journalists are considered a higher security risk than members of other professions,” said Maria Trombly, chair of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee.

This visa requirement is particularly onerous when one considers that it is easier for journalists to receive visas for long-term visits than it is for members of other professions who come here on business.

The visa rules are often ignored by customs officials, and many foreign journalists unknowingly enter this country illegally while others are stopped at customs and treated like criminals before being returned to their home countries. The result is an unnecessary hardship for the journalists, and unnecessary embarrassment for the United States.

The detention of the French journalists and their expulsion has resulted in media attention, in a letter of protest by the France-based organization Reporters without Borders and in a call for investigation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Until Congress amends the law to specifically extend the benefits of the Visa Waiver Program to journalists from friendly countries, SPJ urges the Department of Homeland Security to use the most liberal interpretation of “business or pleasure” and not enforce the visa requirements for short-term journalistic visits.

“Doing otherwise does nothing to improve the nation’s security and hurts its standing in the world community,” said Robert Leger, SPJ president and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “Furthermore, it encourages similar restrictions in other countries and makes it harder for U.S. journalists to work overseas.”

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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