Reporters Without Borders wrote to US homeland security secretary Tom Ridge today to complain about the detention of British freelance journalist Elena Lappin on her arrival at Los Angeles international airport on 3 May and her expulsion yesterday for not having a press visa.
"Subjected to a body search, handcuffed and locked up... this journalist was treated like a criminal," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard protested in the letter. Ménard pointed out that 12 other journalists were arrested and treated in the same fashion by immigration officials at Los Angeles airport in 2003, and then expelled, whereas only one such case was reported at any other US airport. "Los Angeles immigration officials should urgently be instructed that such methods must stop," Ménard said. Ménard acknowledged that journalists should comply with procedures established by the law, "but there is no justification for treating journalists like criminals," he insisted. "All these arrests should also serve as a stimulus to the US consular services to inform journalists better, as press visas were not required until the Department of Homeland Security was created," he added. Lappin, who lives in London, went to Los Angeles to carry out interviews with a view to writing an article for the British daily The Guardian. She told Reporters Without Borders she was treated "like a criminal." After being detained on arrival at Los Angeles airport on the evening of 3 May, she was interrogated "for a long time," she said. Then she was subjected to a search, and her bags were searched. "I had the impression that there is a policy to intimidate the individual," she stressed. She was taken to a Los Angeles detention centre about 30 km from the airport in a van in which she remained handcuffed. "There, I was put in a cell with no place to sleep. There was just a small bench about 30 cm wide." The next morning, she was taken back to the airport, where she spent the day before being put on a flight at the end of the afternoon. She arrived back in London shortly before noon today. Born in Russia, Lappin is a writer and journalist. Her articles have been published in Britain (The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times), Germany (Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and the United States (New York Observer, Granta). Since 1 March 2003, the US Immigration Department has been under the control of the Department of Homeland Security, a super-ministry of interior that is supposed to prevent new terrorist attacks. The United States chapter of the Reporters Without Borders 2004 Report on Freedom of the Press throughout the World says: "The US also changed its visa policy. The rule that working journalists must have a visa, once ignored by immigration officials, is now strictly enforced. As a result, 13 foreign journalists were deported on arrival. It was hard to call this a deliberate restriction of press freedom in view of the subjects these journalists were writing about, but application of the rule is disturbing. They were treated like criminals, interrogated, searched, detained, photographed, fingerprinted and taken to planes in handcuffs - to prevent immigration officers being injured, according to one official. Some of the journalists watched as colleagues, also without journalist visas, passed through immigration without problem. Such deportations, nearly all of them at Los Angeles airport, may have been a case of over-zealous local police." The list of journalists expelled from the United States in 2003 is available at: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=10003