October 18, 2018 - Updated on October 22, 2018

Obtaining US visas: A plight for foreign conflict reporters

Jack Guez/AFP
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is publishing an analysis on the difficulties foreign journalists face attempting to obtain visas to travel to the United States, either due to visa denials based on the grounds of “terrorist activities” or because the visas remain pending indefinitely. RSF calls on the United States government to provide transparency in the visa application and appeals processes.

For the past several months, RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have catalogued the accounts of foreign journalists who have had issues obtaining visas to travel to the United States. These journalists, who have all reported in global conflict zones or traveled to certain “countries of particular concern” (as identified pursuant to the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act), have been outright denied visas on the grounds of “terrorist activities” or remain waiting indefinitely as their applications process. While each reporter’s difficulties vary, they share similar frustrations in the application and appeals processes and a lack of responsiveness from the United States government in regards to the status of their visas.


When RSF inquired about the cases of specific journalists who have been accused of “engaging in terrorist activities,” a State Department official said they are prohibited from commenting on individual visa cases. The official affirmed that the State Department promotes a free press as a "fundamental value of the United States," but that national security remains a top priority. Thus, all visa applicants undergo “extensive” security screenings and visas cannot be issued until all concerns raised by those screenings are fully resolved.


“RSF has long been concerned about the United States’ opaque processes for granting foreign correspondents visas to travel,” said Daphne Pellegrino, RSF’s North America advocacy officer.“We call on the State Department to be transparent in the process by which it screens these journalists, and not to confuse reporters who cover the news in conflict zones with hostile actors. When foreign correspondents are labeled as terrorists and denied access, this mirrors the behavior of governments that are notoriously hostile toward journalists, and as long as it continues it encourages and reinforces such repressive behavior.”


The same day RSF and CPJ released their analyses, both organizations sent a letter on October 22 to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsento encourage a meeting to discuss shared concerns regarding journalists’ visa issues and their treatment at the US border. In 2017, RSF and CPJ met with representatives from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as well as DHS to discuss RSF’s draft guidelines for how employees 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, and have not yet made their staffs available again to meet with RSF or CPJ. CPJ’s report, “Nothing to declare: Why US border agency’s vast stop and search powers undermine press freedom," examines the impact CBP’s warrantless device searches at the border can have on journalism.


See the full report below - PDF 

See the Guidelines - PDF


The US ranks 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index after falling 2 places in the last year.