Why visa privilege is a press freedom issue Global Voices
This article by Tina Lee was originally published on Unbias The News. An edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content sharing agreement.
Imagine two journalists who want to investigate a story of corruption in the tomato trade between Gambia and Italy. A journalist with a UK passport can travel to Italy to cover the Italian side and then travel to The Gambia without a visa to investigate further, giving them a more colorful and comprehensive story to present to publications. For a Gambian journalist, obtaining a visa for Italy will present a difficult and costly hurdle that may limit her to writing only on the Gambian side of the issue. Who is most likely to get the signature? If the story wins a prize, who will get it?
Who can frame the story and who is the focus of an article or investigation depends heavily on who is allowed to cover it – and in many cases this is mandated by unfair visa regulations, arbitrary and discriminatory.
The 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined two rights that are essential protections for cross-border journalists: the right to freedom of expression (article 19) and the right to leave one’s country (article 13).
Unfortunately, both are endangered all over the world. But while we tend to be familiar with regimes that limit freedom of expression in many ways – such as arrests of journalists, censorship, threats and coercion by powerful forces inside a country – we rarely think about the second right and how countries in Europe and elsewhere restrict it through their discriminatory visa laws.
Which journalists are allowed to travel?
I had the opportunity to experience this restriction of press freedom firsthand when I was trying to bring international journalists together in Warsaw, Poland, for a conference.
The countries from which many of the journalists we have invited are often at the bottom of the list of press freedom indices – countries such as Egypt, Myanmar and Iran – where serious threats sponsored by government weigh on journalistic expression. But the country restricting their right to travel and learn about journalism across borders was Poland, smack dab in the middle of the European Union, home to seven of the top ten countries for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Although they believe in freedom of expression and frequently criticize other countries for their lack of press freedom, EU countries often present surprising obstacles to journalists traveling here for professional reasons.
From hefty, non-refundable fees and invitation letter requirements, to pre-booked flights and random, unexplained refusals, the EU makes it difficult – and sometimes impossible – for journalists from other countries to travel here for conferences, work and research.
In order to bring journalists to Warsaw for less than a week for our conference, we had to navigate a jaw-dropping set of arbitrary standards for each country that seemed primarily designed to make the candidate give up their desire to leave their country, even briefly. For example, in some countries, no local EU embassy will issue a Schengen visa, so journalists must instead travel to the neighboring country to apply, sometimes multiple times.
In many cases, the Polish or EU Embassy required that a flight be booked in advance in order to consider the application complete. But travel insurance does not cover a refused visa. So this effectively means that individuals have to buy an expensive plane ticket without knowing if they will be able to use it, and cannot be reimbursed if they are refused. For organizations wishing to pay to bring journalists to conferences, this represents a huge monetary risk that may be enough to prevent an invitation.
Moreover, even if a person obtains a visa, they may still face obstacles. For example, one of our journalists was issued a visa for the Schengen zone, but was prohibited from returning to his country through London Heathrow airport.
Did you know that you need a separate visa just to walk through the hallowed halls of Heathrow while transferring flights? Well, we know now.
In addition to limits on surveys, consider limits on networking and career advancement. Journalists rely on conferences to learn new techniques, network with others in their field, and get their stories and work heard. When only journalists from certain countries can attend, they inevitably get the benefits that come with professional exchanges.
In addition to this, restricted journalists may not be able to take advantage of scholarships and grants which are extremely important sources of funding and professional access. If a journalist is not allowed to leave their country to accept an award in person, will they still get the award? And the prestige and notoriety that go with it?
When we ask ourselves why journalism is a field dominated by award-winning Western white journalists, we cannot fail to reflect on how visa regulations shape this reality.
Two of the journalists we invited to join us in Poland were rejected entirely, after booking their travel and accommodation. Although the embassy had no problem communicating the numerous and changing requirements it had for visa applications, it declined to tell us on what basis these professionals were rejected, and therefore were prohibited from take the opportunity to meet their colleagues, learn new techniques and contribute in a small way to the freedom of the press in their own country.
The next time you hear European representatives criticizing other countries’ harsh media regimes, ask yourself: what are these representatives doing to help improve the situation, and in what ways are they making it worse?
Most countries in the world are bound by human rights agreements that protect a person’s right to leave their country, but this right is meaningless without the reciprocal right to enter another country. . At a time of increasing restrictions, Europe must show that it takes press freedom seriously and stop preventing journalists from doing their job.
We won’t know what a truly representative and diverse media landscape looks like until they do.