U.S. denies visa to Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, citing Patriot Act

Colombian journalist Hollman Morris was denied a visa to travel to the U.S. to attend Harvard University's prestigious Neiman Fellowship program.
Colombian journalist Hollman Morris was denied a visa to travel to the U.S. to attend Harvard University's prestigious Neiman Fellowship program. (Juan Forero/The Washington Post)
By Juan Forero
Washington post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 10, 2010

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- In his work reporting on this country's drug-fueled conflict, Colombian journalist Hollman Morris has met frequently with high-ranking American officials and been received at agencies from the State Department to the Pentagon.

In January, it was a lunch with State's No. 2, James B. Steinberg, at the residence of the American ambassador in Bogota. A few months before that, he had met Daniel Restrepo, senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, to discuss alleged abuses by Colombia's secret police.

But when Morris sought a U.S. student visa so he could take a fellowship for journalists at Harvard University, his application was denied. He was ineligible, U.S. officials told him, under the "terrorist activities" section of the USA Patriot Act. The denial has incensed human rights advocates in Washington, who have raised concerns that the Obama administration has been influenced by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's government, a frequent target of Morris's critical reports.

Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer in New York, said the visa denial appeared to be ideological, because no public information tying Morris to terrorism has surfaced. Jaffer had litigated Bush administration exclusions of two prominent Muslim academics, Adam Habib from South Africa and Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen who teaches at Oxford University. The Obama administration rescinded those denials after judges ruled that the government had not made a case for excluding the men.

Jaffer said the Morris case "does raise questions about whether the Obama administration has actually retired the practice of ideological exclusions." In decades past, under a 1950s-era law designed to limit the entry of communists and their supporters, the United States barred prominent intellectuals including writers Doris Lessing and Pablo Neruda.

The exact reason for Morris's denial is unclear. But on June 16, at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Morris was given a "refusal worksheet" detailing how he could be denied for engaging in terrorist acts or representing terrorist organizations.

An embassy spokeswoman, Ana Duque, said that privacy rules prevented U.S. officials from elaborating. "It's all between the applicant and the consular section," Duque said.

Morris and those who support him, including Human Rights Watch and the Nieman Foundation for journalists at Harvard, contend that the Uribe administration orchestrated the denial because of his work. Uribe has frequently accused Morris of ties to Colombia's largest rebel group, calling him "an accomplice to terrorism" in one speech last year.

Morris, in an interview Friday, said, "If you have proof that I am a guerrilla, then why not put me in jail? Why just this campaign to discredit?"

José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, said there is evidence to show that Colombia's intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security, or DAS, "engaged in a deliberate effort to win cancellation of his visa by linking Hollman Morris with the FARC," the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Vice President Francisco Santos, asked to comment on the case, declined an interview.

According to documents prosecutors have made public, the DAS had begun a campaign to discredit Morris by tying him to the FARC. Among the strategies were plans to "press for the suspension of the visa."

The DAS's possible role in providing the United States with information on Morris has raised concerns among some Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill who work on American policy toward Colombia. A congressional aide who helps shape Latin America policy said that "we have requested, with urgency, a full intelligence briefing on the extremely serious allegations" against Morris.

The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to publicly comment, said the lawmakers suspect "that the DAS blackballed him because he dared to investigate DAS abuses, which now have been verified and are widely known."

Morris, 41, who has done documentaries for the History Channel and European television, said he has frequently met with the FARC as part of his work reporting on the conflict. A series of e-mail conversations he held with top commanders in 2004 -- and that were made public by Cambio magazine last year -- indicate that Morris tried to sweet-talk them in order to get an interview with a famous hostage the group was then holding, Ingrid Betancourt.

Those e-mails seem to show a high level of confidence between Morris and the hermetic FARC. But later emails show FARC commanders turning on Morris, calling him a "coward" and "an opportunist."

American officials, meanwhile, have had only good things to say about Morris, at least publicly.

After Human Rights Watch named Morris the "Human Rights Watch Annual Defender" of 2007, R. Nicholas Burns and Paula Dobriansky, both high-ranking State Department officials, met with him and issued a news release expressing "great admiration for the courageous work" he had undertaken.

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