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

Welcome to our NEW NORMAL folks. We've turned into Nazi Germany and the Gestapo will be watching and waiting. For all of you who voted for rumpy -- here's a big kiss my a**.

Anonymous

Pardon me? This is the Obama administration. This has nothing to do with Donald Trump. While it is very concerning, make sure and direct your anger where it belongs.

Rocker

Yes Obama is still in charge for the next month and a half but there are some people already acting as if Trumpty Dumpty is in charge and just don't care. I am seeing all over and not just on TV. What cracks me up is that most of these so call Trumpy supporters didn't even vote.

Anonymous

I agree with you; all manner of people have been emboldened by Agent Orange. Obama will be out of office long before these border agents are investigated. They are clearly making a logical assumption, that the incoming regime would applaud this abuse of their authority.

Richard A

Rocker - This is not new behavior as a result of Trump supporters in CBP, ICE, FBI, Homeland Security, or any other enforcement agency suddenly becoming bolder as a result of Trump's election. This has been going on in varying degrees throughout Obama's term in office during which the worst actions of the Bush administration have been continued and in some cases strengthened. Every immigration entry or check point, as well as the zone approximately 50 to 100 miles inside the borders of the USA have been treated as "rights free zones". There have been numerous reports of people's computers, mobile phones, and cameras being confiscated by immigration and border enforcement without indication of probable cause, without charges being filed, and without informing the person what they were supposedly suspected of or why they were being searched and their property confiscated. Additionally reports of people held for extended periods without charge, without access to telephones, and without access to counsel. Basically, immigration and border patrol seem to be a group that can operate at the discretion of individual officers or location heads without having to consider constitutional protections and individual rights, whether applied to foreign nationals or US citizens. And it has been happening throughout Obama's Presidency.

Anonymous

This is happening now already. Dumb ass.

Anonymous

You hit the nail on the head but the morons in this country cant seem to see that even if you show them proof. they are in total denial and you know the rest is history

Anonymous

Border Patrol is emboldened by the president-elect Trump. They've been on NPR stating that no real wall between Mexico and the US will be built -- that massively increased numbers of CBP agents will become that wall. Like the harassment of this journalist, the CBP, and likely all law enforcement agencies across the nation, will be able to do whatever they want to whomever they want with impunity.

Waseem

I am myself having horrifyingly experience of homeland security while travelling in US in August. At four different airports I was subjected to additional screening abd questioning while I continued to tell them that I am a journalist working with a leading newspaper in Pakistan. I also filed application with the redressal mechanism but despite passage of two months still await the outcome. Hope they will improve their behaviour.

Anonymous

They should be checking you throughly if you're from Pakistan!!!

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