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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It wouldn't be CBP who interrogated Ed. The Canadian Border Patrol officers are in charge of incoming traffic to Canada and outgoing international traffic outside of the USA. It's the American equivalent that's in charge of incoming traffic to the states. So the officers at fault are not CBP,but the American border guards.


CBP is US Customs and Border Protection. The Canadian equivalent is CBSA, Canada Border Services, Agency, which was not involved in this case.


Once the flood gates are opened by one administration, the subsequent administration will use the policy as precedents to continue the same!


The author clearly states this happened during the Obama administration... can you not read?


I'm an artist who went to Canada 2004 on a trade mission. It was during an election year with Bush up for re-election. I was there for a few days. Upon my return to the states, I was asked what I had in the boxes in the rear of my jeep. I replied that my samples were there. They asked the worth and wanted me to pay,a tax - on my own goods! I objected and they detained me!!! When I asked another question, I was told to keep my mouth shut, pay the tax, or I would be held in contempt. I had never encountered such treatment from anyone like this before. I was furious and scared, realizing the power these bullies have. I paid the tax on my own work, and finally got across the border. Upon my return, I didn't know where I could get help. I'm ashamed to say I didn't think of the ACLU of which I'm a big supporter. Thanks for finally being a place where I could tell my story. Certainly not on the same scale as this photjournalist, whom I hope gets some satisfaction after his ordeal.


Take your eyes off of the injustice of this and instead look at, "Who profits?" Gaze towards the source, not simply the action.


No Wonder the Media did not cover the DAPL protests until
the last minute.


The problem is people hate oil, some like it ,people running for office, should state how they feel about oil, clearly there is problem, still Trump hasn't mentioned how he feels about the damn oil, I would not have voted for him, and if he is a oil pipe lover, I want my money back, damn it$$$$

Johnny Brett

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