By Julian Pecquet Posted Oct 1 2003
The detention and expulsion of six French and four British journalists by immigration officials at Los Angeles International Airport in May has the media and government offi-cials on both sides of the Atlantic engaged in a heated argument: Was this a standard procedure, an overzealous application of regulation, or a deliberate targeting of journal-ists because of the media's perceived criticism of U.S. policies?
The journalists, all members of the entertainment media, were going to Los Angeles to cover the ninth edition of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video game industry's major annual trade show, which took place May 14-16. They were arrested in three sepa-rate incidents on May 10 and 11 as they arrived at LAX without proper visas. They had applied for admission under a 1986 visa-waiver program that allows citizens of 27 coun-tries, including France and the United Kingdom, to visit the United States for up to 90 days for business or pleasure. The waivers do not apply to journalists.
Thierry Falcoz, a reporter for the French cable television channel Game One, was de-tained May 11, along with cameramen Laurent Patureau and Alex Gorsky.
Falcoz said journalists are rarely expelled from the United States. because immigration officials have always let them get in with the waiver, under an unofficial “don't ask, don't tell” policy. All the French and British journalists interviewed for this article, as well as their superiors back home, agreed.
“At the worst, you would pay a fine” of about $100, Falcoz said. Even this time around, Falcoz said he initially passed immigration, but was later arrested in the airport after one of his cameramen was denied access.
The three French journalists detained on May 10, all of whom work for weekly television guides, shared a similar story. While reporters Stéphanie Pic of Télé Poche and Michel Perrot of TV Hebdo were allowed to enter the U.S., Alexandre Alfonsi of Télé 7 Jours was blocked at immigration. He said his two colleagues went looking for him and were informed that he was being detained. Although Pic and Perrot didn't have the right papers either, they were reportedly told they had passed immigration and were therefore home free. Instead, they chose to share their colleague's fate.
James Michie, a spokesman for the Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol at the Depart-ment of Homeland Security, denied there's ever been an unofficial policy to turn a blind eye to journalists using a waiver. Nevertheless, he conceded that controls have become tougher since the September 11 attacks.
Although Alfonsi's boss, Télé 7 Jours' Editor-in-Chief Jean Lesieur, agreed that immi-gration officials need to do their jobs, he didn't agree with their methods.
“What I do condemn, and violently, is the way they were treated,” he said. “Those are methods worthy of a totalitarian state.”
Alfonsi and Falcoz said the French journalists were interrogated on site before being led through the airport in handcuffs. Alfonsi said he and his colleagues underwent six differ-ent pat-down searches and were photographed and fingerprinted. After spending the night at an immigration detention center where lights shone through the night and video cam-eras covered every corner, including the toilet, they were put on a morning flight back to France.
“All the while, we were forbidden from looking or speaking to each other,” he said.
Michie denied any wrongdoing on the part of immigration and said it's routine for ex-pelled foreigners to be locked up for the night when there is no flight immediately avail-able to take them back home.
“The law requires that we provide individuals with as many comforts as we can until they are sent home,” he said. “In the meantime, we can't allow them to roam free because they are in an illegal status.”
In France, the Paris-based free-press organization Reporters Without Borders has taken the lead in publicizing the journalists' plight. Robert Menard, the group's secretary gen-eral, has demanded an investigation into the affair.
Some French media, including the satirical weekly Canard Enchaîné, which ran the head-line “The joys of French bashing,” see the affair as proof that the U.S. government is seeking revenge after France's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The newspaper published comments that the expelled journalists say were made by an unidentified atta-ché at the French consulate in Los Angeles.
“You are the victims of a French bashing,” the attaché allegedly told the journalists. “All I can do to help is give you some advice: be tough.”
A woman who answered the phone at the U.S. consulate's press service in Paris and re-fused to give her name said she was unaware of any such comments. The consulate's official position was and remains that this was a visa matter, she said.
Falcoz maintains that's not what French officials initially told his cameraman. He contin-ues to think anti-French sentiment had something to do with it, despite a similar expul-sion of British journalists. He added that one French tourist told him he'd waited a long time while an immigration official checked his papers thoroughly, before erupting glee-fully, “I got him, I got him.”
But one expelled British journalist said he fears the United States might be singling out journalists because of their profession rather than their nationality.
“I think many government officials are suspicious of journalists as a whole,” said the expelled journalist. “They'd rather not have anyone enter the country who might want to investigate what's going on and say things they don't want to hear.”