On October 3, Ben Watson, news editor at the national security news website Defense One, was passing through customs at Washington Dulles International Airport, when a CBP officer held Watson’s passport and forced him to say he writes “propaganda” before he could reenter the country. Watson recounted this incident of harassment for Defense One, noting that he filed a civil rights complaint with CBP’s parent agency, DHS, which the Department is reviewing.
This is just the latest reported incident in an ongoing series of altercations between CBP and journalists. In August, a CBP officer barraged magazine reporter James Dyer while passing through security at Los Angeles International Airport. The officer accused Dyer of being a part of the “fake news” media and “attacking their democracy.” Six months prior, BuzzFeed reporter David Mack was aggressively questioned at John F. Kennedy International Airport about an investigation he published which alleged that President Donald Trump had ordered his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Russia. Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan called reports of these incidents “unacceptable” at an October 8 White House briefing, and CBP and DHS spokespeople confirmed that both agencies are investigating the most recent matter.
“These incidents are not one-off encounters but rather part of a disturbing trend that points to a culture within an agency that openly demonstrates hostility toward journalists,” said Dokhi Fassihian, Executive Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “We expect CBP’s investigation into the matter to be comprehensive and that the agency holds to account this employee and all others who attempt to intimidate or harass journalists.”
In the midst of a mounting crisis at the US-Mexico border in early-March, an NBC News affiliate station published leaked documents showing a secret database created by the US government of journalists, activists and others who should be stopped for questioning when crossing border checkpoints in southern California. The database included the names of nearly 60 people, including 10 mostly American journalists, who had been working at the border. Agents questioned or arrested more than a third of those individuals, some had alerts placed on their passports, and at least two photojournalists were denied entry to Mexico, according to NBC News station KNSD-TV. The documents, which are dated to early January, have been used by agents from CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), US Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) sector in San Diego.
RSF and its press freedom coalition have long been concerned by the treatment of journalists by CBP agents at US ports of entry. In 2017, RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists met with representatives from CBP as well as DHS to discuss RSF’s draft guidelines for how CBP should treat journalists who are flagged for secondary screening at the US border. However, neither entity has shown any meaningful attempts to implement these guidelines.
Two days after the NBC story broke in March, DHS cancelled a pre-scheduled meeting with RSF and its coalition partners. On May 1, RSF and more than 100 other organizations sent a letter to DHS urging it to cease the targeting of journalists, lawyers or activists based on their First Amendment-protected speech and associational activities.
“If the leadership of DHS and CBP are serious about their commitment to ending these incidents, they should begin by reengaging with civil society organizations working on these issues,” said Fassihian. “As a matter of urgency, RSF is calling for a culture-shift within these agencies so this abuse of power ceases. DHS should issue a policy directive that prohibits the arbitrary harassment of journalists, and provide specific guidelines and training as a matter of priority to all border agents.”
The United States ranks 48th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.