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Colombian journalist reflects on US visa dispute

Posted by Your Town  August 24, 2010 11:56 AM

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The State Department sparked an international incident in June when it denied a visa for Colombian journalist Hollman Morris to study at Harvard University, before reversing the decision last month.

Morris, 41, produces a television program that has criticized alleged ties between illegal right-wing militias and officials associated with outgoing President Álvaro Uribe, a close US ally. As he prepares to begin his Nieman Fellowship, the Globe asked Morris to reflect on the controversy.

Q. You had visited the United States in the past without problems. Why was this time different?

hollmanmorris.jpg
Nieman Foundation
Morris
A. In the last five years I have traveled more than 10 times to the United States. During these trips on different occasions I have met with officials from the highest levels of American government, including [top diplomat] Nicholas Burns and members of the Pentagon and the State Department. I have been invited by American congressmen to speak about the situation of journalists and human rights defenders in Colombia.

Also ... I have traveled to receive different awards such as the Human Rights Watch Award. Because of all the above, this was my first surprise, this visa denial. I have no details about the motives in this situation.

Q. Do you know why the State Department changed its decision?

A. What is certain is that the secret Colombia police from 2003 on intended to sabotage me, to track my family in an illegal manner and launch a national and international smear campaign to link me to the [FARC] guerrillas. They also intended to block my visa. The above is one of the bigger scandals of the government of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who is at this moment being investigated by Colombian prosecutors. The evidence is clear that this was a criminal operation to ruin the reputation, the family stability, and psychological well-being of a journalist.

Q. Tell me a little about the support you received from various journalists and organizations around the world.

A. The support received and the expressions of solidarity are the one positive thing in this sad episode. It demonstrated the value and appreciation of my journalistic work and of the journalistic team, work that has been reflected during the last years in the program “Contravía.”

Many people who were mobilized did so because they are familiar with my work, and my work is nothing but a permanent denunciation and a historic record of the barbarism that thousands of humble Colombians live with. This work has been the object of much recognition but also of countless death threats that have continued putting my life in danger as well as the lives of my family and team.

We did witness the value of and strengthen the role of a family united against adversity. The support of my wife, parents and siblings was decisive. For many years they have dealt with threats and the irresponsible delegitimization of a president. But this episode for me was mental, physical, and moral defeat in a struggle for respect over the last 10 years. Thanks to my family and true friends, we have moved forward.

It also reaffirmed for me the value and the esteem of friendships that have been constructed in the last 10 years.

Q. After all this, what do you think of the process for obtaining an American visa?

A. I think that the State Department has to take more care in its visa process. There is a danger of negating the slogan of hope that carried Obama to the presidency. There is a danger of resembling his political opposition against which he won the elections.

Q. It is interesting that the president-elect of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, also was a Nieman fellow (1988).

A. I hope that the president-elect Juan Manuel Santos remembers all that he learned in his turn as a Nieman, such as respecting the political opposition, and that the journalist should ... bother a government in certain situations.

What do you want to study as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University?

I want to study the role of the press in processes of reconstruction of the memory of history, reparation and truth, and how in the midst of humanitarian dramas the press gives us a voice and gives visibility to the victims. But without a doubt, it will be a time for living a normal family life that [my wife, children and I] have lost out on over the last 10 years.

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