CBP harassment of journalists affront to free press principles

If it were an isolated incident, what happened to journalist Ben Watson at Dulles International Airport would be shocking.

But the treatment the Defense One writer and U.S. Army veteran was not an isolated incident, which makes it appalling. There are several cases of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers harassing journalists, searching computers and phones and maintaining files on journalists who cross the border.

Watson related his own incident where he was coming back from a reporting assignment in Denmark. The CBP agent took his passport and when Watson said he was a journalist, the agent then said, “So, you write propaganda, right?” Watson said no, but the agent kept repeating the question and Watson could only leave when he agreed that he wrote propaganda.

It’s the kind of stunt you see with schoolyard bullies, not sworn law-enforcement officers.

But there have been other incidents as well.

In February, a Buzzfeed journalist was questioned about his organization’s coverage of President Donald Trump and Robert Muller’s investigation of the president. CBP officials later apologized.

A freelance journalist was detained by border agents for hours at a Texas airport.

British journalist James Dyer was called part of the “fake news media” by a CBP officer at LAX and asked if he worked at CNN or MSNBC.

“He aggressively told me that journalists are liars and are attacking their democracy,” Dyer said in a tweet about the incident.

And, closer to home for us, Canadian journalist Ed Ou was detained for six hours while flying from Vancouver, B.C., to cover protests in the United States in 2016. Officers took his cellphones when he refused to unlock them, and when he got them back he suspected they were tampered with and data was downloaded from them.

This is behavior you’d expect in a totalitarian dictatorship, not the country that, until recently, was seen as the standard bearer for the rights of a free and independent press.

In Watson’s case, the CBP issued a statement saying that it is investigating the “alleged inappropriate conduct” and that it does not tolerate such behavior by its employees. Which is what it said in Dyer’s case.

It’s fairly obvious that agents are following the lead of Trump, who has admitted to disparaging journalists in an effort to discredit them when they write stories that hold him accountable for his actions.

As an officer in the Society of Professional Journalists, I condemn these actions. It is unlikely that the agency will make any changes on its own, so Congress needs to step in and use its oversight authority to put an end to these abuses.

And, as journalists, we need to stand up and call out these abuses when they do occur, and not allow this administration to intimidate us from seeking truth and reporting it.

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