January 21, 2021

Press Freedom

United States

Homeland Security Hits Foreign Press

Ian Williams

by Ian Williams, OPC member and Foreign Press Association President

Almost by stealth, Homeland Security is proposing ill-considered changes that will dampen foreign reporting in the U.S. and on the U.N. – while risking provoking foreign governments to retaliate with restrictions on U.S. reporters going abroad. Foreign Reporting of the U.S. and the U.N. is about to be completely transformed with “I” visa changes that threaten the livelihoods and legality of foreign correspondents – and no one is reporting it or protesting!

The DHA is proposing that I visas be limited to a “renewable” 240 days. While thousands of students and others affected by similar visa restriction have registered objections, the press has mostly been silent. The FPA is protesting but individual correspondents and their media need to register their objections, and we only have two weeks to do it. This proposed rule change is open for comment through Oct. 26.

Unless they have residency or citizenship, foreign reporters in the U.S. operate on an “I” visa that has the flexibility to accommodate an overnight reporting trip from a neighboring country or a long term bureau chief with family and a home in the U.S. – and, in between, correspondents who frequently visit the U.S. to report on the U.N., Wall St or Washington. Currently visa holders are admitted to the United States for the “duration of status,” which does not define the period that representatives stay in the U.S. This offers the flexibility needed for a quick working visit, regular re-entry or long term residence as in a bureau. The DHS now proposes a period of 240 days for I visa holders – with the possibility of extensions. Our feeling is that this limits the flexibility of the visa so journalists based elsewhere will need to maintain continual renewal while those based here will be faced with continual uncertainty. A long time reporter who, for example, brings a family across will face the possibility of their life being upended every eight months.

Good luck getting an apartment or office lease for 240 days! And anyone who thinks renewal of status will be seamless and assured has not been doing much reporting on life in the USA recently! One cannot underestimate the threats to freedom of the press. In times past, I know that one Democratic Secretary of State checked on my visa status to check whether I was entitle to write critical pieces about her in the Nation (luckily I was!), and we can expect worse from this administration. Being scrutinized by Homeland Security every 240 days is bound to have a dampening effect on reporters’ objectivity!

But importantly for the OPC, it would naïve to assume that foreign governments would not take the opportunity to retaliate against the already small and dwindling number of U.S. bureaus and reporters. It is important to point out the implications. OPC members should look at the changes and rush their objections and comments to DHS before the 26 Oct. deadline.

Click here for a link to the DHS public announcement. 

Click here to read the full proposal for public review on the Federal Register.

The FPA has already protested about both U.S. and PRC harassment of journalists by visa and we foresee that with increasingly hostile environment for journalism, these rule will lead to overt or covert intimidation of the foreign press, quite apart from the bureaucratic hassle of confronting the DHS at regular intervals.

Please send your comments for inclusion in the FPA submission to the DHS and please make your views known as well, both to the DHS and any legislators with whom you have contact. Please also contact your home country press officers and ask them to intervene.

Send comments to: Ian.Williams@foreignpressassociation.org.