Civil Rights

Congress must probe government’s monitoring of journalists covering the migrant caravan

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In December of last year, Bing Guan and Go Nakamura, both experienced photojournalists based in New York, were working out of Mexico, chasing a big story: a caravan of 2,000 migrants at the U.S. border. When the journalists crossed back into the United States through the Tijuana-San Diego checkpoint, Customs and Border Protection agents tried to pump them for information, asking them to look through pages of what appeared to be surveillance photos and mugshots to identify the caravan’s instigators.  

We now know that Guan and Nakamura were subject to a frightening government initiative to single out journalists who reported on the migrants. Last week, NBC 7 obtained leaked documents describing an effort by the government to monitor journalists and other activists with knowledge of the caravan. At least 10 journalists were on a list of individuals pinpointed for additional screening. The Intercept reported that agents searched the devices of an independent documentary filmmaker and an activist. Another two journalists questioned were later denied entry when they tried to travel to Mexico. Several more journalists have described similar treatment.

{mosads}There is no evidence that border agents were acting on orders from the White House, but the scandal reflects two strands of hostility and fear-mongering central to our current political climate. President Trump labels migrants on the Mexican border as a national emergency, and the press as the “enemy of the people.” The situation was ripe for abuse.

The confluence raises urgent questions about press freedom in this country: Who in the United States government authorized an operation to single out journalists in this way? What is the influence of the president’s anti-press, anti-immigration rhetoric? How often have border agents used secondary screenings of journalists to try to get information about their reporting or their sources? What intelligence gathered from American journalists is Customs and Border Protection sharing with other U.S. agencies, not to mention foreign governments, in this case Mexico? What, if any, limits were placed on this program, and were lawmakers aware of it?

In my role at an international press freedom organization, I routinely see authorities around the world use the pretext of intelligence-gathering to justify scrutiny, harassment, and — in somes cases — imprisonment of reporters. This logic, taken to its extreme, can pose a serious threat to press freedom: In Kashmir for example, the Indian government repeatedly pressured the journalist Aasif Sultan to turn over intelligence about the militant groups on which he reported; he’s been jailed since August. In Colombia, the intelligence agency under then-President Álvaro Uribe routinely spied on journalists, both in an effort to intimidate them and to identify their sources.

In the U.S., the San Diego cases were an acute example of a longer trend of border agents abusing secondary screenings to interrogate members of the media about their work. Dozens of journalists have been questioned about their work at the border since 2008, often asked to hand over phones or laptops, which border agents claim the authority to search without a warrant or probable cause.

These issues pre-date the Trump administration, but they are getting worse. Government figures show total number of electronic device searches at the border has tripled in the past three years. And the San Diego cases are the first evidence of a coordinated campaign to gather intelligence from so many journalists entering the U.S. in one place.

Customs and Border Protection claims it was investigating a violent confrontation along the border in November, but also described the questioning of journalists as “standard law enforcement procedure.” But secondary screening as a pretext to interrogate journalists about their reporting should not be a standard practice. The agency also claimed it has initiated an inquiry and that it has protocols for interactions with the media, but press freedom groups have repeatedly been rebuffed when asking for such protocols.

A coalition of these groups and media representatives were planning to ask Customs and Border Protection a series of hard questions last week in a long-scheduled meeting, but the agency canceled our meeting at the last minute.

CBP agents are charged with upholding the Constitution. They have failed, and now Congress must step in. Already, leadership of the Senate Finance Committee has called for an unclassified briefing from CBP. The deadline is today. Congress should also not stop here. The House Committee on Homeland Security has already sent a letter, the counterpart committee in the Senate should follow suit. The inquiry should not stop at San Diego. Lawmakers must question the constitutionality of an agency that compiles dossiers on journalists, interrogates them about their reporting, and searches their laptops and phones without oversight or probable cause.

Alexandra Ellerbeck is Committee to Protect Journalists’ North America Program Coordinator.

Tags Caravan Customs and Border Protection Donald Trump

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