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Published: Saturday, 12/13/2003

A repressive embarrassment

Anyone who thinks the administration and its law enforcement chief, Attorney General John Ashcroft, aren t out to impede a free press need only hear how the federal government is treating foreign journalists coming to this country on assignment.

Without notification to foreign media outlets, the immigration and customs people are arresting, detaining, and deporting journalists arriving here without special visas. This is so even when they come from nations whose citizens can stay for up to 90 days without a visa if they are arriving as tourists or on business.

If that threatening form of registration is not enough, members of the press arriving without the visas, which no one told them they needed, are treated like criminals, handcuffed as they re marched through airports, photographed, fingerprinted, and their DNA taken.

Peter Krobath, chief editor for the Austrian movie magazine Skip, was held overnight in a cold room with 45 others who arrived without the visa. The room had two open toilets, a metal bench, and a concrete bench. He was here to interview movie star Ben Affleck and see the movie Paycheck.

Thomas Sjoerup, a photographer for the Danish paper Ekstra Bladet, was deported after a few hours during which a mugshot, fingerprints, and DNA sample were taken. A French journalist said he and five others from his country were marched across the airport in handcuffs, without belts or laces.

The International Press Institute in Vienna, a media freedom group, has complained not only about Mr. Korbath s treatment but also, and indeed more important, the fact that only foreign journalists need special visas.

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists is about to launch a global campaign against the absurd and repressive rule that casts suspicion on working journalists who come to this country on business as valid as any other traveler s.

A U.S. embassy official in Vienna said visas have always been required. If that requirement existed, it was more honored in its breach and ought to be rescinded.

It should not take a world media outcry to address this problem. It s a policy that puts these United States in the ranks of Third World dictatorships.

Members of Congress, regardless of party, who understand the absurdity of it all, even in these troubled times, should demand an end to this repressive embarrassment.

It s not likely President Bush ever will.

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