Colombian Journalist, Nieman Fellow Denied Visa

A Colombian journalist who had been invited to serve as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard for the 2010-2011 academic year applied for a student visa to enter the United States but was denied on “security and related grounds.”

Hollman Morris Rincon—one of the 25 journalists awarded the prestigious Nieman Foundation fellowship for the upcoming year—is a preeminent human rights reporter and producer of an independent television news program called “Contravia.”

Those rallying behind Morris’ entry into the United States have not been able to grasp fully the reasoning behind the denial of his visa, due to the lack of information the U.S. Department of State has been willing to release, according to Joel C. Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“[He] is being excluded from entering the United States based on information that is apparently confidential,” said Simon, who has been working with the Nieman Foundation to grant Morris entry into the country.

Robert H. Giles, the curator of the Nieman Foundation, said that he has called upon several journalism and human rights organizations to appeal to the Department to reconsider Morris’ application. No other Nieman fellow has been denied a visa by the U.S. government, though visa applications have seen delays in the past.

Giles said he suspected that a possible reason Morris was denied the visa was the journalist’s critical coverage of Colombia President Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s administration. Morris’ connections with sources not in support of the outgoing president could have been interpreted as “terrorist activities,” Giles said.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma—which is also working on the Morris situation—said that the nature of Morris’ work has subjected the Human Rights Watch award-winning journalist to numerous threats on his life. Morris has been involved in investigating the Colombian intelligence agency and has reported on the victims of the civil war in Colombia.

In hopes of bolstering the credibility of Morris’ journalism, Nieman fellows in the class of 1988 are collaborating on a letter to their classmate and president-elect of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos. Though Santos serves as the Minister of Defense under Uribe, he was also a journalist and sub-director of El Tiempo, the family-owned newspaper with the largest circulation in the country.

Morris was already a “relatively frequent” visitor to the United States prior to the recent visa application, according to Shapiro. Morris had spent a week at the Dart fellowship in 2008 and even testified at a congressional subcommittee meeting in D.C.

“My view is that there’s something wrong with the process when one of the most distinguished, independent human rights journalists in the world can be labeled a security risk for the United States,” said Shapiro, whose center is a project of the Columbia School of Journalism that provides resources and training for reporters of violence and tragedy.

“It’s very troubling that one of the leading journalists of Colombia and one of the consistent critics of the government is being denied access to a highly competitive fellowship program for which he is qualified,” Simon said.

Giles called the situation ironic, given that the U.S. government—which supports exporting democratic ideals to countries like Colombia—is denying entry to a journalist who shares similar beliefs. The Nieman program would equip Morris to return to his country to continue “the conversation on how to bring peace to society,” Giles said.

“It would serve the United States to have him here as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard,” he added.

“We [journalists] speak truth to power, and that’s what Hollman does,” Shapiro said. “That’s what our First Amendment is supposed to protect and encourage, and that’s what this country has always stood for.”

The Nieman Fellowship Program is a mid-career program for journalists on the domestic and international field. Each year, at least 12 U.S. and 12 international journalists are selected to attend the year-long program at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

The U.S. State Department declined request for additional information due to “privacy considerations.”

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at xyu@college.harvard.edu.

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