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US bars acclaimed Colombian journalist

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By Gabriel Elizondo

Hollman Morris is a Colombian journalist who has received dozens of international awards for his work uncovering atrocities and human rights abuses in the decade’s-long armed conflict in his country.

But the United States apparently views him as a terrorist. (More on this terrorist thing later).

For many years Morris, an independent television journalist, has risked his life trekking to remote (and dangerous) corners of Colombia to talk to victims of Colombia’s war. When there were allegations of the Colombia military or paramilitaries killing innocent people in a far away corner of the country, many journalists would report the story with a few press releases and phone calls from the comfort of Bogota. If it was reported at all. Not Morris. He would go to the source, often walking through the jungle for days to get to the location, speak to people, and find out what happened, and put it on television.

At its best, Morris's work has led him to uncover evidence of atrocities potentially committed by actors of the state. At minimum, his reporting has often thrown doubt on official government positions few other journalists seem dare to challenge.

By all accounts, this has infuriated the outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, who has publicly insinuated Morris is a terrorist sympathiser because of his interviews with the Farc guerilla group.

Morris and his family, including his young daughter, were victims of illegal spying by Colombia's spy agency, the DAS (among a handful of other journalists, lawyers, judges, opposition politicians, and human rights activists).  Human rights groups say it was a deliberate attempt to dig up any personal dirt they could find on him to squash his reporting. The scandal was so big, the agency was going to be dismantled, but as of yet it has not.

Regarding the Farc, it’s true Morris has interviewed Farc commanders over the years. But so have countless other journalists from Colombia and abroad. If Colombia threw in jail every reporter who has had contact with the Farc, the jails would be full overnight.  

But Morris’s critics – and there are many in Colombia – largely fail to recognise only a small portion of his stories deal with the Farc; most of his pieces have a razor sharp focus on human rights, giving a true and authentic platform for those otherwise with no outlet to tell their story.

It is true that because Morris aggressively pursues stories on the ‘front lines’ of conflict, he often finds himself in sticky situations. Like last year when he recorded brief interviews with several Farc hostages moments before they were granted freedom, a move that was criticised by some in Colombia as Morris allowing himself to be used by the Farc to promote a propaganda agenda. In journalism theory class, maybe so. But when in the jungles of Colombia caught in between a firefight between rebels and the Army (as Morris has been on several occasions) perhaps things are not as clear at the time. 

And unlike many other journalists, Morris isn’t afraid to give his personal viewpoints on President Uribe (especially after the government spying scandal against him), thrusting himself into the realm of activist-journalists, according to his critics. 

But he and his brother, Juan Pablo – who is the executive producer at their Bogota-based Morris Productions - are recognised as respected, top shelf journalists by many people. They have done documentaries for Discovery Channel, European channels, and for many years had an independent programme on Colombian public TV called Contravia, partially funded by a grant from the European Union.

I first met Hollman and Juan Pablo almost eight years ago. We have since crossed paths in Peru, Honduras, Washington DC, and several times in Colombia. They have both worked for Al Jazeera on numerous occasions on a freelance basis, and specifically helped me on stories.

But the crowning recognition of Morris’s journalistic aptitude was being awarded a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, where he was going to join an elite group of other journalist's from around the world in this years class, and step back from his day-to-day reporting to study human rights issues that could enhance his theoretical understanding of the issues he reports on back at home.

But right as Hollman was making final preparations to head off to Harvard, brushing up on his English, the US government branded him with another label: “Terrorist". As the Associated Press pointed out, his visa to study in the United States was denied, as US officials told him he was ineligible on grounds of a ‘terrorist activities’ section of the US Patriot Act.

Of course, US Embassy officials in Bogota won’t comment on individual cases.

So the speculation from human rights groups interviewed in a recent Washington Post article about the case, is that the Uribe administration – Washington’s closest friend in Latin America this decade under the George W Bush administration - orchestrated the visa rejection because of Morris’s reporting that questioned Uribe’s policies. Now some are pinning it on the Obama Administration.

I won’t pretend to know what the truth is on why the visa was denied and what role - if any - the Uribe administration played. It is no secret Morris’s reports over the years have annoyed Uribe to no end, and thus Uribe has tagged him a conspirator with terrorists, regardless of the fact he has never been charged with any such a crime. Groups such as Human Rights Watch protested Uribe's comments

The larger question is: What exactly is the objection from the US government to having an internationally recognised Colombian journalist do a Harvard-sponsored fellowship? What exactly is the evidence of his terrorist activities, or how exactly is he in violation of the Patriot Act?

Maybe ironically, the same US Embassy in Bogota that rejected his study visa to Harvard, singled him out in a 1997 human right report as having to flee the country because of death threats from illegal armed actors (scroll down to the section titled "Freedom of Speech and Press" in the link above).  

The Committee to Protect Journalists has sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her department to reconsider Morris's case.

For their part, the Nieman Foundation appears to stand behind Morris, but that is a small consequence because without a visa there is no chance to take part in the fellowship. 

One of the comments by a reader identified as "vaalex" in the Washington Post article about the case said this: “His (Morris’s) work is too important to interrupt by wasting time at Harvard. The State Dept. decision is a blessing in disguise.”

A backhanded compliment to Morris, I guess, but still probably little consolation.

Because after Morris was accepted to Harvard, at first glance, one would think the US State Department would have opened the door and patted him on the shoulder with congratulations. Instead, the State Department slammed the door and slapped him across the face and branded him with the terrorist label.

Gabriel Elizondo has been reporting from Brazil for over three years both for television and the web.

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