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.

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Anonymous

Nothing new about the "wrong look." About 35 years ago we were re-entering the US after spending Christmas week at Cañons de Cobre with our college age daughter. We drove down in an older station wagon. Coming back to the US, CBP pulled us out of line for inspection and ordered us to take everything out of our car. We did. Then as they went through our stuff they asked about 3 little empty plastic bottles in a new travel case we had given our daughter for Christmas. "What is in these they asked?" "Nothing" our daughter replied. They kept asking and finally she replied, in disgust.... "Air! They are full of air." When they had finished harassing us, they ordered us to "Clean up our stuff" (spread all over the ground) and "Get out of here!" Why did they do this? We figure it was because we had visited a former student's family in Los Mochis, we had a young person with us, and we were driving an older car. Appearances! Best to just look like a regular tourist I guess.

Anonymous

Love the "new path "!!

Anonymous

To create a strong deterrent against future war crimes, torture and other criminality - it's time to start criminally prosecuting and disbarring government attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies that served during the Bush and Obama Administrations.

If there is a strong deterrent to force government attorneys to honor their oath of office to follow the U.S. Constitution, Trump's DOJ attorneys won't let him torture, perform extrajudicial drone strikes or do other ungodly things.

Trump or any other president would lose their legal shield and lose their sovereign immunity protections if his attorneys simply say "NO". Trump would be in serious legal jeopardy if he commits war crimes when the DOJ attorneys are honest.

Randy_Torres

Don I believe you're not correct, at least I hope your not. As far as I know the Constitution doesn't say, this document applies everywhere EXCEPT the border.

Canucky

I'm Canadian and a frequent traveler to the US, and I hate to break it to you, but this "egregious" behavior encountered by your journalist is basically par for the course for CBP. Nothing in this article surprised me in the least; most of it has happened to me and most other Canadians I know. EVERYONE has some sort of CBP horror story. It's common knowledge up here that CBP officers on a power trip will randomly ask you to unlock your cell phone, threatening to deny you entry (or worse: bar you from the country) if you refuse. (It's legal, by the way -- search & seizure laws don't apply to border security in the same way as they do for regular US citizens in the country.) The attitude you'll encounter is shocking: more often than not, they act as if they're doing you a favor by even considering your request to enter the country. It's not an "Obama" thing, nor will it be a "Trump" thing -- it's just the way they are. It may seem 'inhumane' to someone encountering it for the first time, or an organization like yours indignant that their photographer was "harassed", but this stuff (and much worse) this is going on every single day at every point of entry.

Anonymous

I've heard similar horror stories from Canadian friends and colleagues who've been abused when trying to cross into the USA. Yes, this kind of inhumane treatment by the CBP is "normal", but it shouldn't be. It seems to me this should be an issue for the Canadian government. How is it that Canadian officials and politicians can allow such egregious mistreatment of their citizens on a regular basis? Is it a matter of avoiding the creation of a contentious issue with a major trading partner and more powerful neighbor? Perhaps an effort to urge Canadians to demand their government make a formal diplomatic complaint to the US government, with sanctions as a persuader, would have more effect than trying to directly press for change in Washington.

DMontaigne

Yes, we all have horror stories about experiences at the Canadian-US border but Americans are not aware that this goes on all the time. I was working in the US under a TN (NAFTA) visa in 2001-02. Our company went through an internal reorganization which meant I technically was out of status as I was now employed by an entity with a different EIN. When head office was slow to process my paperwork, I was extremely worried but corporate counsel in NY couldn't understand why. For some reason they thought that as a Canadian I'd received some special treatment. Not so, I told them and promptly flew home so I could get my new TN with the correct EIN (employer identification number). The Border security folks have an incredible amount of power and don't hesitate to use it.

Scott

This event happened around Oct 1st 2016 when we all believed that Hillary was to be our next President

Sled

For those accusing 'the Obama Admin' for this, may I remind you that Homeland Security and The Patriot Act were birthed from the Bush admin after Sept 11th. Lots of civil rights organizations tried to warn the public back then about the slippery slope towards authoritarianism. I'm afraid its too late for the USA. You've allowed the rich to co-opt your government. They now protect the capitalists, not the people. If you try to change that...you're the terrorist.

Ex No-Dak

So which border crossing was he attempting? Big detail to leave out. This strikes me as exactly the way he'd have been handled crossing directly into North Dakota coming down from Winnipeg. They're getting very thin-skinned about the way the world is viewing their Birmingham, Alabama @ 1960 treatment of the Standing Rock protesters.

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