US gov't 'created database' of reporters covering migrant caravan

Groups express concern after NBC obtains leaked documents showing secret gov't list of journalists, activists at border.

    US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials detain a group of migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]
    US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials detain a group of migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

    Rights groups have voiced concern over the targeting of journalists, activists, and lawyers who have aided or represented migrants at the southern border by the United States government.

    Leaked documents, obtained by NBC station KNSD-TV, show that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) compiled a list of 59 journalists, lawyers, and activists - most of whom are US citizens - to subject to secondary screening at the US-Mexico border and include in an intelligence-gathering effort.

    Agents have questioned or arrested at least 21 of them, KNSD-TV reported. 

    Since the list was created, several of those included on it told NBC News they have been pulled aside by agents at the border for what was said to be a "national security investigation".

    In some cases, authorities flagged their passports for alerts, the television station reported. 

    Others who do not appear on the leaked list have also reported being subjected to secondary screenings. Al Jazeera journalists have also been pulled aside for additional questioning.  

    CBP told NBC News the list was of people who were present during the violence that broke out at the border with Tijuana.

    Those on the list have also had their social media accounts monitored. The US government is believed to have created dossiers on them all with the help of Mexican officials. 

    'Trample on rights'

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    Mitra Ebadolahi, a senior staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego's Border Litigation Project, said for years the government has used the pretext of border security to "trample" on Americans' constitutional rights.

    "This most recent example is just the latest in a steady stream of CBP abuse of authority, and once again underscores the dire need for meaningful agency oversight and accountability," she said in a statement.

    Esha Bhandari, a staff lawyer with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said this was a violation of the First Amendment.

    "The government cannot use the pretext of the border to target activists critical of its policies, lawyers providing legal representation, or journalists simply doing their jobs."

    She said the ACLU was exploring "all options in response".

    The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the NBC report confirmed the organisation's "suspicions about CBP's actions toward journalists covering the migrant caravan". 

    "We will meet with CBP today and ask them once again to commit to no longer using secondary screenings as a pretence to harass journalists or gather intelligence," Alexandra Ellerbeck, CPJ's North America Program Coordinator, said in a statement. 

    "We are also asking members of Congress with oversight over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to thoroughly investigate this disturbing pattern of activity," she added. 

    US-Mexico cooperation

    The US government list is dated January 9, 2019, and titled, San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019 Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators, and Media, according to US media. 

    The list was made after thousands of Central American migrants fleeing poverty, political persecution and violence travelled to Tijuana to begin seeking asylum in the US at the San Diego border. US President Donald Trump falsely described the Central American exodus, previously dubbed the migrant caravan, as an "invasion".

    Mexico later pledged to increase security near its border crossings.

    The cover of the list reportedly includes a seal with both the American and Mexican flags.

    Last month, The Intercept reported that four photojournalists who had gone to the southern side of the US-Mexico border to document the arrival of migrant caravans from Central America had their passports photographed by Mexican officials. 

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    One was later barred from reentering Mexico while others were questioned upon reentry to the US.

    Also last month, CPJ said officials from Mexico's National Institute for Migration refused entry to two journalists who came to cover a migrant caravan in Tijuana.

    Responding to reports of secondary screenings last year, CPJ put forth a series of recommendations for CBP and DHS to ensure that security measures did not undermine press freedom. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies