The journalist as terrorist

People in positions of power probably think to themselves that journalists are basically terrorists, even if they won’t go so far as Richard Perle, a prominent Republican official who applied the term publicly to Seymour Hersh. But Colombian journalist Hollman Morris Rincon had his visa denied by the U.S. government, as this piece by the Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton outlines apparently because he is considered a terrorist. Morris is, like me, a 2011 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, though his status now stands in jeopardy. The visa situation perplexes me. It’s not just Nieman-related people who wonder what’s going on. This blog post at IJ Central, U.S. denies visa to human rights journalist, [which borrows a little too liberally from the Associated Press piece on Morris] delves into why a prominent journalist who has received many international awards might get placed on a U.S. terrorism list, and also says Morris has been given documents allegedly from Colombian security about a campaign to smear him. Among its goals: get Morris’s visa revoked.
I don’t understand Spanish, so I can only speculate here. It looks like Morris was critical enough of both sides to be seen as an honest broker. At one point that was useful to the Colombian government, but with FARC in retreat, it no longer cares. Yes, Morris may possibly have become a proxy for the FARC guerrillas, as Colombian politicians reportedly say. But that belies FARC’s lengthy history of human rights violations. See, for instance, this line from a 2005 report issued by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights:

The illegal armed groups, particularly the FARC-EP and the paramilitaries, continued to commit serious and numerous breaches such as attacks on the civilian population, indiscriminate attacks, homicides, massacres, hostage-taking, acts of terrorism, forced displacements, use of antipersonnel mines, recruitment of minors, slavery, and attacks on the personal integrity and dignity of women and girls in the context of acts of sexual violence.

It seems unlikely that a human rights journalist would suddenly take sides with such an organization while continuing to expose the similar ill deeds of government-approved paramilitaries.

Governments, however, grab opportunities to damage opponents and critics. Latin America is rife with current examples, but Americans should avoid feeling smug; our internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the McCarthy-era blacklists are egregious examples of similar behavior. Colombia’s political establishment has a history of targeting human rights defenders. The UN Human Rights Commission this March issued a report on Colombia’s human rights situation that highlighted a multi-year campaign by the Colombian government to discredit journalists and others who pointed out human rights violations. Morris doesn’t even rank as the first Colombian journalist to be denied a visa on grounds of consorting with terrorists.

The Commission noted that Colombia’s president and other officials routinely accuse people who defend human rights in Colombia of being terrorists.

[its actual language: “The Special Rapporteur was shown video footage of public statements made by the President of Colombia in which human rights defenders were portrayed as colluding with terrorists or guerilla members. In addition, in early 2008, a presidential advisor, Jose? Obdulio Gaviria, publicly accused human rights defenders who were taking part in a peaceful demonstration of supporting FARC. The judicial police, the army and regional units of the Attorney-General’s Office reportedly made similar statements.”]

The UN’s March report, which was written well before Morris was named a Nieman, also noted that the government appeared to be hounding him, and that he has previously had to flee Colombia because of death threats.
Morris may well have become expendable to a government that felt it had quelled FARC. Or he may simply have published one too many stories exposing the ties of Colombian politicians to paramilitary organizations that behave as brutally as FARC. For this, we deny him a visa? We should be offering him asylum.

This being so close to the Fourth of July, I re-read the Declaration of Independence. What’s happening to Morris makes me wonder whether we Americans elect people who give more than lip service to the political ideals espoused in it. In this case, it seems more like our country is committing acts defining a Tyrant.

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