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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Bigmacbear

According to the CBC story which links to this article, he was trying to fly in from Vancouver. Travelers who do this are pre-cleared at the Canadian airport by US CBP before even being allowed to board the plane.

Jason R

Ok, I'll bite

1) the policies are very clear, and certainly 'journalists' aren't the only ones getting searched and having their electronics investigated
2) did he have a work permit? Certainly he is 'working', I wonder what his answer was on entry? B-1 permit - really? this is very telling - because if he was working without a permit - well thats against immigration law
3) if you don't want your electronics searched - don't bring them... many companies in finance, etc. pre ship employees laptops, or simply use internal systems to replicate. You cross, you can be searched.. no matter 'who you are'
4) why does the media think they are special?? I'm really tired of this whining and belly aching. you have to conform to the same laws everyone else does - YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL
5) refusal to unlock your phones, allow entry to laptops, etc. is essentially and immediate denial - um - everyone who is a regular international traveller should/would know this - see #4 - YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL
6) ACLU jumps on almost anything that is newsworthy, lose basically everything and have almost no impact on policy or these types of actions. Their time would be better spent on education and guidance instead of trying to generate headlines for 'SPECIAL' people like this.. 1000's of people worldwide (Canada, UK also have these policies duh!) are subjected to the same conditions and searches.
7) 6 hours isn't too bad to investigate a background, confirm stories (especially if he essentially blocked an investigation) - I've had people spend 20+ hours in many airports - and they were cooperative (Read: THEY WEREN'T ASSUMING THEY WERE SPECIAL)

/* rant over

Anonymous

He wouldn't need a work permit. Just an I or media rep visa.

Anonymous

You don't need a work permit to make photos or report the news, just FYI.

Anonymous

Journalists ARE special. US Constitution, First Amendment.

Anonymous

Being an average Canadian/American crossing a small NY state border on a regular basis, it seems like it's a matter of luck as to what the current border instructions are, the personal prejudices or fears of agents, and their lack of intelligence. They are, after all, border bureaucrats who don't always behave objectively or with discretion. Now, I speak as a retired white elderly woman who has experienced both negative and positive approaches towards me. Were I an Asian journalist covering controversial issues within the US, I suspect the response of prejudice and bigotry would be greater in their interrogation. Since the issue of terrorism, it's a new world.

Anonymous

Yes very common harassment on all borders and airports from Canada to USA for anyone. I have even had European guests tell of being held during airport plane transfers in the US for up to six hours and screw up their trips with no intention of setting foot in the States. The border guards in USA play god all the time. It doesn't matter if their right or wrong it's how they "feel" and the bush administration gave them that " authority". Sickening " Land of the free" more like land of the incarcerated.

Anonymous

Sorry Hugh you are sadly misguided and it appears uninformed. This is standard operational procedure with border services on a secondary and sometimes even a first inspection of foreigners coming to "the land of the free".

Anonymous

hardly new usa has been going this way for many years and its there standard way to treat any one not already inside usa

Anonymous

This is a very bad trend. Journalists have been arrested for "committing journalism" this is not a communist country where if you point a camera, even as a tourist, you may have an weapon in your lens and an angry official yelling. It has happened to me in my travels and should not be happening in the US!

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