A Colombian journalist who was recently denied a visa to study under Harvard University’s Nieman Fellowship program says the State Department’s decision may put his life under further threat. Hollman Morris, an investigative television producer who has denounced abuses by leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the Colombian army in the country’s decades-long internal conflict, was denied a student visa in late June. The denial reportedly came under a provision of the Patriot Act that makes foreigners suspected of “terrorist activities” ineligible for admission to the U.S..
Morris, who has received death threats for ten years, believes the “terrorist” label will increase threats against him and his family.
The journalist, whose family lives under the protection of bodyguards, says the visa denial “indisputably puts my life in danger.” Had the visa application been accepted, Morris’ family would have moved with him to Cambridge for the year. The head of the Nieman Foundation program, Robert Giles, says this is the first time in the 60-year history of the program that an international fellow has been denied entry to the country.
U.S. officials have not provided the exact reason for Morris’ denial. Morris and human rights advocates supporting his case believe the rejection is connected to a campaign by Colombia’s intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), to discredit Morris by linking him with the leftist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Colombia’s largest rebel group is on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The State Department declined a request for comment, citing Morris’s privacy.
Over the past year Morris has traveled to the U.S. to discuss Colombia’s human rights issues with officials at the Pentagon, Department of State, Congress and White House. In January of this year he lunched with Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg in Bogotá, according to the Washington Post. In 2007, Human Rights Watch gave Morris the annual “Human Rights Watch Defender Award.”
In February 2009, the Colombian press unleashed a nation-wide scandal when it reported that the DAS had been carrying out widespread illegal wiretapping, email interceptions, surveillance, and threats against people viewed as critics of President Álvaro Uribe, a list that includes Supreme Court judges, presidential candidates, journalists, and human rights defenders.
Morris — whose television show Contravía has been critical of the Uribe government and has denounced alleged ties between paramilitaries and members of the government and armed forces — was a primary target of DAS wiretapping and surveillance. Documents obtained by Morris from the Colombian attorney general’s office, which is investigating the DAS, indicate that the intelligence agency orchestrated a smear campaign against Morris that included instructions to link him to a FARC video and “press for the suspension of the visa.”
Stunned by the rejection, Morris suspects that “contaminated” information from the DAS, which answers directly to the presidency, could have reached the intelligence files of U.S. agencies. “I never thought that this government with whom I’ve had the best relations would deny my visa. That’s why I insist and believe that it’s a lamentable error.”
Death threats first forced Morris and his wife to flee Colombia in 2000. In May 2005, funeral wreaths announcing Morris’ death were delivered to his wife at his Bogotá home. Threats spiked after February 2009, when President Álvaro Uribe publicly linked him to the FARC and called him an “accomplice of terrorism.”
The Washington Post notes that past accusations levied against Morris have cited 2004 email exchanges between the journalist and top FARC commanders that apparently demonstrated a “high level of confidence” between the two parties. Morris says that the communications were part of his legitimate work as a journalist to interview famous FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt for a documentary he was producing, and that the emails led to no legal action.
Accusations of having guerrilla ties can be deadly in Colombia. For years, human rights organizations have documented how paramilitary death squads and state security forces kill unionists, journalists and ordinary civilians suspected of collaborating with insurgents. Former DAS director Jorge Noguera (2002-2005) is currently on trial for purportedly supplying paramilitaries in northern Colombia with a list of unionists to be targeted.
Leftist guerrillas — who commit widespread atrocities in Colombia — also carry out reprisal killings against those suspected of working with paramilitaries or state forces.
The executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, says Morris’s fears are plausible: “The risk is simply that that the rejection of the U.S. visa is seen to validate some of the extremist rhetoric being used against Morris.” The Inter-American Press Association has also sent a letter to the U.S. ambassador in Colombia claiming the denial makes Morris vulnerable to reprisals by violent groups.
Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, which awarded the journalism fellowship, says Morris has “not done anything wrong.” The ACLU, American Association of University Professors, and PEN American Center have written a letter to Secretary of State Hillary asking her to review the exclusion. They say it is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s banning of Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, who was also accused of terrorist ties.
Meanwhile, Morris remains hopeful that he will be able to study human rights and documentary production with the yearlong fellowship at Harvard.
For his nine-year-old daughter, it is a much simpler matter: “When we told her that we were going to Boston, the first thing she asked was if we’d have bodyguards there. I told her no and she said, ‘Yippie! That’s the best thing about going to Boston.'”