The Media Today

Journalists harassed, documented by border officials

March 8, 2019

Something weird was going on at the border. In early February, the LA Times’s Kate Linthicum, Cindy Carcamo, and Molly O’Toole reported that two photojournalists—Kitra Cahana, a Canadian-American freelancer, and Daniel Ochoa, a Spanish photographer for the Associated Press—had been harassed by both US and Mexican authorities as they covered the arrival of the migrant “caravan.” Border Patrol agents, they said, took pictures of them while they worked; meanwhile, Mexican police officers photographed their passports. Between them, Cahana and Ochoa were subsequently denied passage to Mexico at three separate ports of entry. (Two immigrant rights attorneys also said they’d been turned away.) “I’m in limbo,” Cahana told the LA Times as she weighed her options. “What kind of list am I on?”

A week after that story dropped, The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux added more details. In a long and damning report, he wrote that four different photojournalists—including Cahana—had been pulled into immigration screenings after Mexican police snapped their passports. One of them said US authorities showed him a book of border-based activists and asked him to identify who he knew; others said their notebooks, cameras, and phones were confiscated. It appeared this harassment was coordinated: when Mexican police stopped a second group of photojournalists and photographed their passports, an officer said they were doing it “for the Americans.” The Intercept also posted a video in which a Border Patrol agent can be heard accusing journalists of aiding and abetting migrants’ illegal entry into the US. “If you come to the United States, we could conceivably get [an] arrest warrant for whoever was doing that,” he said.

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The multiple sources cited in the two stories left little doubt that US authorities were deliberately targeting journalists. On Wednesday, we saw some proof. An anonymous source inside the Department of Homeland Security handed Tom Jones, Mari Payton, and Bill Feather—three journalists with NBC’s San Diego affiliate—documents showing that the US government kept a secret database of journalists, activists, and “instigators” tied to the caravan; compiled intelligence on them; and, in some cases, flagged their passports. Of the 10 journalists listed, seven are US citizens. The source said the database was used by five agencies—Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Border Patrol, Homeland Security, and the San Diego branch of the FBI—and stressed that it constituted a clear abuse of power. “We can’t create dossiers on people,” they said. “This is an abuse of the Border Search Authority.”

Press-freedom advocates responded with outrage. “Let’s be clear: This is unconstitutional,” wrote Esha Bhandari and Hugh Handeyside of the American Civil Liberties Union, adding that Customs and Border Protection’s response to NBC—that it was tracking journalists to learn more about what happened during a violent episode at the border in November—constitutes an “end-run” around Department of Justice guidelines regulating the coercion of journalists in investigations. The secret database likewise got the attention of politicians. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, yesterday wrote to the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection requesting more information; Darren Soto, a Democratic congressman, called the database “McCarthyism.” According to BuzzFeed, the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security is investigating the matter.

Keeping dossiers on journalists and, in some cases, impeding their movements is clearly abhorrent to press freedom. But when it comes to the border, in particular, more is at stake. Reporters there have done essential work documenting official abuses of the law and human rights against very vulnerable people. As Guillermo Arias, a Mexican photojournalist with AFP, told The Intercept, Border Patrol agents could, in the past, turn away migrants without properly processing them. “When you have media, you can’t do that,” he said.

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Below, more on the border:

  • A cruel image: According to The Intercept, the harassment of journalists intensified after November 25, when Customs and Border Protection first used tear gas to repel members of the caravan at San Ysidro. The episode quickly came to be defined by a photo of a Honduran family running to escape the gas. Shortly afterward, CJR’s Amanda Darrach interviewed Kim Kyung-Hoon, the Reuters photographer who took the picture.
  • Improving coverage: Last week, Tiffany Stevens reported for CJR on the journalists who have relocated to the border. “In the past year, both the LA Times and The New York Times have sent reporters to live in border cities, in hopes they might better learn about, and from, the people who make their homes there,” she wrote.
  • Excellent coverage: The border beat has seen some outstanding reporting in recent months, particularly around family separations. While such reporting has often slipped down the news cycle, it hasn’t let up. Last weekend, for example, The New York Times’s Manny Fernandez tracked the “hidden nightmare” of sexual violence on the border.
  • Illegal spyware: In November, The New York Times’s Azam Ahmed reported that the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s then-outgoing president, may have used sophisticated spyware to hack Mexican journalists’ phones.

Other notable stories:

  • The Washington Post petitioned a federal court to open a stack of sealed and redacted records substantiating prosecutors’ claims that Paul Manafort, Trump’s disgraced former campaign chairman, lied to them last year, violating the terms of a cooperation agreement. The request came the same day a judge in Alexandria, Virginia, sentenced Manafort to less than four years’ prison time in one of two criminal cases against him—falling far short of sentencing guidelines. He faces a second sentencing in Washington on Wednesday.
  • After the Democratic National Committee announced Wednesday that it will not host a presidential debate on Fox News, citing Jane Mayer’s explosive recent story in The New Yorker, Chris Wallace, an actual journalist at the network, hit back, telling the Times that the DNC had merely used Mayer’s reporting as a pretext for its decision. The Post’s Margaret Sullivan defended the move. “Despite the skills of a few journalists”—like Wallace—“who should have long ago left the network in protest, Fox News has become an American plague,” she writes. The DNC’s decision “was a mild, reasonable step that recognizes the reality that Fox News shouldn’t be treated as an honest broker of political news.”
  • More fallout from Mayer’s reporting: Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee requested documents that could shine more light on Mayer’s claim that Trump directed senior officials, including Gary Cohn, to interfere with AT&T’s bid for Time Warner, which owns CNN, which Trump hates. Though Mayer said Cohn resisted the instruction, the nugget caught lawmakers’ interest, the Post’s Brian Fung and Tony Romm report.
  • For CJR’s latest print issue, we analyzed what it’s like to live in a news desert—an area where no general news publication exists. The 10 counties we analyzed tended to have lower median household income—and higher poverty rates—than the national average, as well as lower rates of college graduation and broadband access.
  • The State Department rescinded an International Women of Courage Award it planned to give Jessikka Aro, an investigative journalist from Finland whose work has exposed Russia’s propaganda machine, Foreign Policy’s Reid Standish and Robbie Gramer report. The State Department blamed an “error,” but Aro, supported by officials close to the process, says her award was stripped due to past social media posts criticizing Trump.
  • The Times’s Farhad Manjoo tracked the flow of misinformation around the recent rise in tensions between India and Pakistan. “What I found was alarming; it should terrify the world, not just Indians and Pakistanis,” he writes. “Whether you got your news from outlets based in India or Pakistan during the conflict, you would have struggled to find your way through a miasma of lies. The lies flitted across all media: there was lying on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp; there was lying on TV; there were lies from politicians; there were lies from citizens.”
  • Ahead of elections in Thailand later this month, a prominent opposition politician could face up to five years in jail under a draconian law regulating online content, the AP reports. Pongsakorn Rodchompoo said he unwittingly shared a hoax news article about the country’s ruling military junta, which has now filed a police report on the matter. The leader of Rodchompoo’s party had previously been charged under the same law.
  • Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign minister, has granted diplomatic protection to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national who was imprisoned in Tehran for allegedly training journalists on behalf of the BBC. The rare step was taken due to concerns over Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s treatment. Under her new status, any injury to Zaghari-Ratcliffe will also be considered an injury to Britain.
  • Also in our print issue, Nicole Craine asked nine random people on the streets of New York to weigh in on matters of journalistic practice, and what the media means to them. “I would go with my local news over national,” Stephanie Parks, from Bossier City, Louisiana, told Craine. “National is a lot of bogus information.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.