The North American Congress on Latin America denounces the State Department’s decision to deny a visa to Colombian TV journalist Hollman Morris. Morris was slated to receive the Samuel Chavkin Award for Integrity in Latin American Journalism, given by NACLA in recognition of his brave and uncompromising coverage of the armed conflict in Colombia. NACLA originally planned to hold the Chavkin Award ceremony on June 8 but had to postpone it when it became clear that the U.S. Embassy was taking much longer than usual to renew Morris’s tourist visa. The government later denied Morris a student visa that would allow him to take up a prestigious Nieman Foundation fellowship to study at Harvard University.
The visa denial appears to be intended to punish Morris for his reporting on the Colombian peace and human rights movement. According to the “refusal worksheet” provided to Morris by the State Department, the visa was denied under section 212(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which, as amended by section 411 of the USA Patriot Act, bars visas from being granted to any foreigner who has used his or her “position of prominence” to “endorse or espouse terrorist activity, or to persuade others to support terrorist activity or a terrorist organization.”
In denying Morris a visa on these grounds, the State Department joins the Colombian government in tarring Morris as a “publicist for terrorism,” in the words of Colombian president Álvaro Uribe. Since coming to power in 2002, Uribe has often portrayed Colombia’s human rights community, peace activists, and others who favor a negotiated peace settlement as in league with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s more than 40-year-old guerrilla insurgency and a U.S.–designated terrorist organization. Documents made public in April show that Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security (DAS), a domestic intelligence agency under the command of the presidency, in 2005 launched what it called a “smear campaign at the international level” against Morris.
“Negotiate the suspension of [U.S.] visa” appears on the agency’s list of tactics against Morris (which also included the dissemination of defamatory materials, wiretaps, and physical surveillance). Morris was targeted as a part of a broader dirty tricks program aimed at silencing and intimidating government critics; almost two dozen former DAS officials are awaiting trial on criminal conspiracy charges in connection with the scandal. Although no evidence has appeared to suggest that a request from Colombian intelligence directly led the State Department to deny the visa, the decision nonetheless exactly coincides with one of the smear campaign’s goals.
The most recent accusations against Morris came in February 2009, when Colombian president-elect Juan Manuel Santos, then Uribe’s minister of defense, joined Uribe in publicly accusing Morris of working with the FARC. These denunciations came after Morris filmed last-minute negotiations led by Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba, together with members of a Colombian peace group and the Red Cross, over the release of four hostages held by the FARC. The negotiations proved successful, and the FARC released the hostages. The footage of this was included in Colombia, la hora de la paz, a documentary later aired on the History Channel’s Latin America network. According to Uribe, Morris’s coverage amounted to pro-guerrilla propaganda, and his contact with the FARC in his capacity as a journalist amounted to collaborating with them.
Why would the Colombian president resort to calling a well-respected journalist, whose family has endured numerous death threats, a terrorist? Because news coverage of successful FARC negotiations is deeply embarrassing to the Uribe government, whose Bush-style “war on terror” is premised on the idea that the FARC cannot be negotiated with; that diplomacy with the guerrillas, who number in the thousands and control an estimated 30% to 40% of Colombian territory, is misguided; and that the only solution to the conflict is to crush the enemy, waging a total war funded by the U.S. government to the tune of $7.3 billion since 2000.
No credible evidence of Morris’s involvement with terrorism has ever come to light, nor has the Colombian government ever charged him with a crime. Indeed, his only “crime” has been to cover and take seriously the Colombian peace and human rights movement—as well as to doggedly expose the corruption in the Colombian government, the grave human rights abuses committed by the country’s security services, and the political influence of paramilitary groups. Moreover, the idea that a journalist’s contact with combatants in an armed conflict automatically amounts to supporting or endorsing them is contrary to mainstream understandings of journalistic practice.
As Carol Rose noted in a blog entry on the Boston Globe’s website, Morris’s visa denial recalls the McCarthy-era practice of “ideological exclusion,” codified in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, in which the United States barred entry to artists and intellectuals thought to be tainted with Communism—notable examples included Graham Greene, Charlie Chaplin, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Doris Lessing, and Pablo Neruda. U.S. journalists during this time also faced limits on their freedom to travel; one of them was Samuel Chavkin, the late investigative journalist and Latin America correspondent in whose name NACLA was to bestow an award on Morris.
There is a powerful historical resonance between Chavkin and Morris. In 1951, after two decades of reporting for a variety of news outlets—including the U.S. Army papers Yank and Stars and Stripes—Chavkin tried to renew his passport so that he could travel to Southeast Asia to cover hunger for the humanitarian group CARE. The State Department refused, saying only that granting him a passport would “not be in the best interests of the United States.” Chavkin did not get his passport back until 1960, after enduring almost a decade of forced retirement.
The Chavkin award, established by his family, is meant to encourage Latin American journalists to expose injustice and oppression, and to document struggles for social justice and democracy in Latin America. We can think of no better way to honor Chavkin’s legacy, and that of all other journalists whom governments have tried to silence, than to award Hollman Morris the Chavkin prize, in absentia if necessary, on a date to be announced in October.