The visa ban is worse for journalism than you think

February 3, 2017
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When Trump signed an executive order Friday that placed a 90-day ban on visa holders from seven countries entering the US, a cascade of stories of lives thrown into turmoil ensued. Some were left stranded while traveling overseas, unable to re-enter the country they call home. Others cancelled plans to leave the US out of fear they wouldn’t be able to return. As of February 1, The Washington Post reports that 940 people were prevented from boarding planes bound for the US and some 200 more were denied entry after landing. Today it was reported that 100,000 visas have been revoked.

Journalists were not immune. Iraqi Kurdish journalist Namo Abdulla was granted asylum in the US five years ago, and has been waiting two years for his wife to join him. Those plans are now on hold. The BBC’s Ali Hamedani, a British reporter born in Iran, was detained at Chicago’s O’Hare airport for more than two hours while officers searched his computer, phone, and Twitter account. Nesrine Malik, a Sudanese-born, London-based journalist wrote eloquently for The Guardian about what it’s like to think that she could no longer travel to America (restrictions against British nationals are now reportedly in question). “It is a curious feeling, a new feeling. One that collapses space-time and connects you to all those before you who have found themselves on the ugly end of a collective insanity. It is a feeling that rocks the very ground on which you thought we all stood.”

But beyond the immediate impact on journalists whose travel is now restricted, the visa ban could have larger and more far-reaching implications. In the worst case scenario, reciprocal bans could prevent journalists from traveling to places where important events are unfolding that affect America’s national security. Reporters covering the ban could be discouraged from writing about it due to harassment. And sources could be discouraged from talking about how the ban affects them for fear of reprisals. In short, stories that need to be told may not be.

Tim Arango, Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, has spent several years in Iraq. In a story published Monday in the Times, Arango wrote about the sense of betrayal felt by many Iraqis, some of America’s most important allies in the fight against ISIS, and reported that the Iraqi parliament was calling for their government to respond by banning US citizens. Arango says it’s unlikely the Iraqi measure will pass, but “if the Iraqis do ban US citizens for a time, then it will make it very difficult to cover the country at a time when the battle against ISIS is reaching a critical stage, and when the American military may become more deeply involved,” he tells CJR via email.

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Americans have historically enjoyed wide-ranging freedom to cover the Middle East and other Muslim-majority regions, while decisions about whether or not to enter active conflict zones have largely been made by news organizations based on safety considerations. If the seven countries listed in President Trump’s executive order–Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen–were to institute reciprocal bans it would be detrimental to coverage of a region that holds interest for families of US troops and many concerned citizens.

Arango is also seeing how the ban is affecting local Times staffers, many of whom he considers friends. “We as a newspaper have had hundreds of Iraqis, employees of ours and their families, resettle in the United States in recent times,” he says. “Many others have been waiting for decisions on their cases, and now those dreams have been dashed.” In one particular case, a close friend of Arango’s whose mother had been visiting him in Baghdad was afraid that as a green card holder she would be unable to return home to Seattle. Arango was relieved to see the restriction on green card holders lifted so she could do so.

Logic suggests that the journalists best equipped to report with depth and nuance on what’s happening in their communities, both in the US and abroad, are those most significantly impacted by the ban. Isma’il Kushkush, a Sudanese-American dual national and former New York Times East Africa stringer, was recently on assignment in Jerusalem for the Associated Press, where he filed stories about Afro-Palestinians and Sudanese Jews. Currently based in Virginia, Kushkush was planning to return to Israel for further reporting, but now he’s uncertain about leaving the US for fear that  border security will prevent him from re-entering. “It doesn’t seem there’s a clear understanding of this order and what it means,” he says. “I’m better placed than a green card holder or someone who is a journalist and coming with a visa, but still it seems there is a lot of chaos. Will this extend to dual nationals? I don’t know.”

The executive order also has more subtle repercussions. Sarah Harvard, a Mic journalist who covers Muslim identity, Islamophobia, and counter-terrorism, worries about the emotional impact on journalists. The fact that the seven countries listed in the executive order are majority Muslim made the ban feel personal to Harvard, who is the Muslim daughter of Moroccan Berber and Japanese parents who moved to the US when she was five. The ban brought back her own memories as a young Muslim in America after 9/11, when her family experienced FBI surveillance, racism, and harassment in a town on the outskirts of Chicago. When she interviewed people affected by the recent ban, she says, “I could hear the pain in their voice, the sense of betrayal, the sense of vulnerability and feeling of helplessness. Hearing them cry on the phone is just scarring.”

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Just as scarring is the harassment that Muslim journalists face. Sabrina Siddiqui, a Muslim reporter for The Guardian, experienced harassment in person while covering Trump on the campaign trail last year. A supporter told her he believed Muslims should either be forced to leave the US or be exterminated. “I don’t know how angry this individual is. I don’t know if he’s going to follow me if he figures out that I’m Muslim. I don’t have any sense what to do in that moment other than to just finish my interview with the voter and then just say, ‘Thank you for talking with me, and have a nice day,’” Siddiqui told CJR for our election oral history. Harvard points out that “the threats and the harassment they’re getting make [Muslim journalists’] jobs difficult to do and sometimes deter people from reporting certain stories.” Adding another layer of difficulty, Harvard says that many Muslims are “afraid to speak to journalists because they could implicate their own families.”

Harvard sees a broader problem in the way the press reports on Muslim issues, noting that “fake news” about Muslims has been circulating for years, but the issue is only now being taken seriously. “The problem of false narratives and the larger media not really understanding, or having the right resources or perspectives, to cover Islam and Islamophobia is that there aren’t enough Muslim journalists out there,” she says. In response to the ban, Harvard pressed go on an idea she has been harboring for more than a year: to start a Muslim American Journalism Association (MAJA).

In the years since 9/11, Harvard has seen slow improvement in societal attitudes toward Muslims, and she doesn’t want that progress undone. “I was told for 12 years never to say I was a Muslim or defend Islam or anything like that, and 15 years later, I’m writing about Islam in the World Trade Center [where Mic’s offices are located],” she says. “The silver lining in Trump being so blatant and so outwardly xenophobic [is that it] has made people wake up and realize our community has been marginalized for so long, and finally enough is enough.”

Being Moroccan Berber and also Japanese means Harvard doesn’t easily fit into one of the existing associations that support minority journalists, such as the South Asian Journalists Association or the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association. She wants to create a universal group, for both Muslim journalists and those reporting on Muslim issues, as a way to increase accuracy in reporting on Islam and stand as a counterpoint to the current hyper-partisan atmosphere.

When Harvard saw how many people were taking to the streets to protest, she teared up at the show of solidarity. At 10:03 pm Friday, Harvard posted a message to Twitter: “If you’re a Muslim journalist in the U.S. contact me.”

The responses that poured in were overwhelmingly positive. “It’s kind of like putting yourself in the middle of the ocean,” she says. “But it’s astounding. Over 300 journalists have emailed me asking me to be a part of it, and what was even more touching was that other journalism associations–the Society of Professional Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists–have all reached out to me and offered to help.” The City University of New York offered space for meetings; product designers and developers offered to build the association’s website. “It was the right moment,” she says.

Harvard met with a group of New York-based Muslim journalists Wednesday to chart a path that will ensure everyone interested, from across the US and abroad, has a voice in the process. By providing a support network and sense of community for those covering these issues, Harvard hopes MAJA will encourage more Muslim voices in the American media at a time when the visa ban threatens to silence them.

Shelley Hepworth , formerly a CJR Delacorte Fellow, is Technology Editor at The Conversation in Australia. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.