My son moved to England and spotted some dated news that I had not heard before. As a writer and continual traveler this note terrified me, but it was dated so I did not pass it on to you. However, another terrifying event just took place which makes me nervous.

The dated news was that there has been an almost unknown change in visa laws in one of our friendly Western nations that could unknowingly land you in jail.

A 2004 article in England’s Guardian newspaper tells the story that about 20 miles from a major international airport, there is a nondescript building housing a detention facility for foreigners who have violated immigration and customs laws.

The writer of this article was an English journalist who was driven there around 11 pm on May 3, 2004, her hands painfully handcuffed behind her back as she sat crammed in one of several small, locked cages inside a security van.

She was then locked in a cell behind a thick glass wall and a heavy door. No bed, no chair, only two steel benches about a foot wide. There was a toilet in full view of anyone passing by, and of the video camera watching her every move. There were no pillows or blankets. A permanent fluorescent light and a television were in one corner of the ceiling. It stayed on all night.

She spent 26 hours in detention. Her crime: she had flown in earlier that day to research an innocuous freelance assignment for the Guardian, but did not have a journalist’s visa which she did not even know existed.

When she originally arrived at the airport she told the immigration officer, “I’m here to do some interviews.”

She was then told, “You came here as a journalist, and you don’t have a journalist’s visa.” She had never heard of it.

She pointed out that she often traveled to this country as her husband and daughter were citizens there and that she had actually lived in the country for many years.

All this fell on deaf ears and finally after an interview asking a complete appraisal of her life, past and present, personal and professional, parents’ names, the fee she would be paid, what it was about, exactly, and, the names of people she was coming to interview she and her luggage were searched. Mug shots and fingerprints were taken.

Then two bulky, uniformed and armed security men handcuffed her and took her to the detention center where she spent the night.

The next morning she incurred the wrath of the detention boss when she insisted on edible food. “I’m in charge in here. Do you know who you are? Do you know where you are? This isn’t a hotel,” he screamed at her.

Reporters Without Borders and the American Society of Newspaper Editors (Asne) claim that cases such as this are part of a systemic policy of
harassing media representatives from 27 friendly countries whose citizens – not journalists! – can travel to this democratic Western nation without a visa, for 90 days.

The deportation for journalists is unheard of in open societies, and, in spite of now being enforced in this country, this law is still so obscure that most journalists are not familiar with it.

I certainly was not and this story caused me to shudder. As a writer and economist I often travel to many Western countries to gather stories or speak at seminars. I have always clearly stated that I was traveling on business, but never thought twice about applying for a special visa.

The warnings are clear. First, if you are traveling even to the friendliest of nations to do any type of work, even for a day or two, be sure to check the visa laws before you go. Ignorance is obviously not an excuse and an error could cause you a great deal of discomfort not to mentioned expense.

You might ask “Which country specifically has been cracking down on journalists?”  Land of the free, the USA. This Guardian journalist, with American husband and child, was deported from Los Angeles International airport. Thirteen foreign journalists were detained and deported from the US in 2004 and 2005, 12 of them from LAX.

This puts at the very least American journalists (like me-gulp) at risk as immigration officers in other countries are notorious for playing tit for tat. This could make the reception for all American travelers distinctly frosty at the least.

Hopefully our great nation learned from this grievous error. Since that Guardian article broke the department of Homeland Security issued a memo announcing that, although the I-visa is still needed, new guidelines give Port Directors leeway when it comes to allowing journalists to enter the US who are clearly no threat to US security.

This did not fly with me. Freedom of the press sits at the very foundation of this nation’s balance of power. No government should ever be allowed to choose in any way which journalists are a threat or not. However I hoped at least that perhaps the government was waking up when they issued this memo.

Now I wonder having the item below in yesterday’s CNN news:

“U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison issued a temporary restraining order Friday against a ‘zero access’ policy announced earlier in the day by Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is overseeing the federal relief effort in the city, and Terry Ebbert, the city’s homeland security director.

“In explaining the ban, Ebbert said, ‘we don’t think that’s proper to let members of the media view the bodies”.

So here we are a year later. Homeland Security is at it again deciding what is proper for the news to report.

I could not agree more with Lt. General Honore by the way. I feel that the sensationalism that the main stream news distributes is disgusting.

However the very essence of freedom is based on the fact that we the people are the ones who should decide what and what not to say, hear and read. It is we the people who should decide whether the newscasters are proper or not.

Once again the government is backing off.   Army Lt. Col. Richard Steele, a member of Honore’s staff, told CNN Saturday night that Honore was partly misunderstood. Steele said Honore meant that no media would be allowed to be imbedded with teams recovering bodies. However, recovery groups would not prevent reporters from doing their jobs, he added.

Let’s hope that these incidents are just cases of bureaucratic stupidity and not a government so fearful that it feels it has to censor what others say about them.

Until next message, may your travels always be easy and free.

Gary