Does What Happened to This Journalist at the US-Canada Border Herald a Darker Trend?

Photojournalist Ed Ou (Photo by Kitra Cahana)

The recent abusive border search of a Canadian photojournalist should serve as a warning to everyone concerned about press freedom these days.  

Ed Ou is a renowned photographer and TED senior fellow who has traveled to the United States many times to do work for The New York Times, Time magazine, and other media outlets. Last month, Ed was traveling from Canada to the U.S. to report on the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, when he was taken aside for additional inspection.

What came next left him questioning what he thought he knew about the U.S. government and the values it stands for, and we’re officially protesting to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Although Ed clearly identified himself as a journalist on his way to Standing Rock, the CBP officers detained him for more than six hours and subjected him to multiple rounds of intrusive interrogation.

They questioned him at length about his work as a journalist, his prior professional travel in the Middle East, and dissidents or “extremists” he had encountered or interviewed as a journalist. They photocopied his personal papers, including pages from his handwritten personal diary.

Ed Ou uses a camera as a shield
Ed Ou uses a camera to shield himself during clashes between anti-government protesters and pro-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution in January 2011. (Photo by Guy Martin)

They also asked Ed to unlock the three mobile phones he uses to communicate in different locations worldwide. Ed told them he couldn’t agree to do that because of his ethical obligation as a journalist to protect his confidential sources. The officers took the phones, and when they returned them several hours later, the tamper tape covering the phones’ SIM cards was altered or missing, suggesting that the officers had removed and possibly copied the cards.

After all that, the officers denied Ed admission to the country without giving him a valid reason. One of the officers said he couldn’t provide any details. Another officer said that Ed’s refusal to grant access to his mobile phones “did not help.”

Ed’s treatment was unjustified and unlawful. Although CBP has the authority to stop and search travelers at the border for the purpose of identifying people who are inadmissible or engaged in criminal activity, the officers exceeded that authority. They had no legitimate cause to detain Ed for six hours, interrogate him about his professional activities, copy his diary, or search his phones. That abusive and harassing conduct is all the more troubling given that the officers apparently conditioned Ed’s admission to the U.S. on his willingness to assist them in searching his phones.

Ed’s ordeal is yet another indication that the government is treating the border as an all-purpose dragnet for intelligence gathering — an approach that is at odds with the Constitution, federal law, and CBP policies on border searches.

When CBP takes that approach to journalists, the dangers are particularly acute. Forcing journalists to turn over their newsgathering materials breaches confidences they are ethically required to honor, discourages reporting on current events, and turns journalists into unwilling agents of the national security state.

And conditioning foreign journalists’ admission to the United States on their willingness to agree to intrusive searches encourages similarly abusive treatment of American journalists in other countries.

Ed Ou walking
Ed Ou photographs a burned home after ethnic Kyrgyz mobs rampaged through minority Uzbek enclaves, burning homes and businesses in Shark, Kyrgyzstan. (Photo by Marina Gorobevskaya)

Treating journalists this way at the border diminishes knowledge of important issues and narrows vital public discourse. It risks eroding press freedom, which is a necessary pillar of democracy.

Ed is fighting back though.

We’ve sent a letter on his behalf to DHS and CBP seeking assurance that Ed will not be subjected to intrusive and inappropriate searches in the future because of his work as a journalist. We’re also asking the government to purge any confidential information it obtained inappropriately during the search.

That the Obama administration would subject a journalist like Ed to harassment and abusive inspection at the border is wrong and alarming. And what this administration claims the authority to do today, the next administration could claim the authority to do in January.

Check out Ed’s photos and reporting here.

View comments (79)
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Anonymous

Hardly easy. I don't think deleting data on a cell phone actually removes all trace.

bigyaz

Crossing the Iraqi or Syrian border, maybe (although highly impractical). But entering the United States? From Canada?

In any case, what's your point? Whether he had confidential source information -- or just pictures of his cat -- they were going to subject him to this outrageous search and seizure.

Don

If I'm not mistaken you have very little rights at the border. Agents at the border have the right to search you, your vehicle and any electronic devices and they must be password opened for them. They can hold your computers, phones and tablets up to a week if they want to check them out. They don't need probable cause to do it either.

Anonymous

Oh, since it's "legal", we should just smile like good little Germans and carry on?

John

Don, you are mistaken. Border patrol officials do not have the right to do as they please, to make decisions arbitrarily and to carry those decisions out in open contempt for the person in question if that person insists on being treated decently and being made aware of what the reason for the behavior is in the first place. Thugs would behave as you describe. The US Constitution doesn't provide a safe space for thugs. Bullies with a little bit of power respect only bigger bullies. That's not the United States. That's not the rule of law. And it's not respectful of a free press.

Anonymous

ACLU, Is this true?

Ann

Not according to the Constitution

Anonymous

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men were created equal...and that they are endowed by their creator with certain...INALIENABLE rights." All men, not just Americans! And not just because they want to enter our country. Being cautious is one thing. Unfettered search of private phones without probable cause does not jive with our Constitution or Declaration of Independence. This journalist was clearly unfairly treated and deserves an apology from the agencies involved.

Me, myself, and I

Don, I think you were talking about pre-WWII Germany. Because that is not suppose to happen in the US. Not only is not suppose to happen, but they don't have a right to ask you to give them the password to your phone or for you to unlock it for them.

A fearful Canad...

It is not just journalists who undergo such treatment at American border crossings. A colleague of mine, a young Canadian of Italian ancestry, who possibly looked Arab to customs officials or just to the computer program that photographs you, was held in a room by himself for hours and then questioned about what he knew about a bombing of a plane in Egypt. He was a teacher in a Canadian International school in Egypt returning after Christmas in Canada with family. He knew nothing about the bombing. Why would he?! His friend, another colleague, was unable to find out what was happening to him. Heaven help you if you have the "wrong" name or the "wrong" look, guilty before proven innocent is the new norm. He made the mistake of flying throught the USA to save money on his flight, his detention at customs, for no or dubious reason, ended up making him miss his flight and the next flight and losing his hotel reservation. It could have been worse of course... I have lived in China and Egypt but I am much more concerned about the USA and the new path it seems to be on.

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