First Amendment, Last Priority

Customs and Border Protection targets journalists

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Illustration by Darin Connolly

Ever get that eerie feeling that somebody is watching you? So did a number of activists, lawyers and journalists whose work has focused on Central American asylum seekers. 

It wasn’t until this month they found out the government had been compiling a concerning number of personal details on them.

An anonymous source from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) leaked the agency’s database to San Diego NBC, revealing the identities of 56 individuals it is monitoring. This intrusion of privacy takes the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the free and fair press to a disturbing new low. 

The watchlist, compiled by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency under “Operation Secure Line,” includes individual’s “country of commencement”, and whether they have had a flag placed on their passports. Each person is labeled media, instigator, organizer or lawyer. It focuses on those who arrived at the southern border last October to report on or offer aid to asylum seekers.

In the months leading up to the leak, several journalists and photographers ran into complications attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border for work, but couldn’t prove anything illicit was going on.

By creating the watchlist, CBP doesn’t have to worry about the Fourth Amendment, which covers unreasonable searches and seizures. However, prior restraint, meaning any attempt to censor ideas before they are published, is still unconstitutional under the First Amendment. 

A journalist’s work often deals with sensitive information, and these searches are a huge invasion of privacy. Up until January 2018, when CBP issued a directive on the search and seizure of electronic devices, the searches were unconstitutional.     

Depriving journalists of their right to autonomy is a staple in the authoritarian toolkit. When watch dogs are muzzled, democracy suffers.

Beginning in December 2018, international photojournalist Ariana Drehsler was pulled in for additional questioning every time she attempted to reenter the U.S. The agents asked her invasive questions about asylum seekers, with the excuse that she had access to valuable intel they didn’t. 

On one occasion, agents instructed her to leave her camera outside of the interrogation room. Drehsler was not able to find evidence that her photos had been examined, but according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 20 journalists had reported having their devices searched, some without warrants. While this is not illegal, searches like these target those who are involved in migrant aid, and agents don’t give further reasoning. 

According to the source from the DHS, creating dossiers on people does not fall under the jurisdiction of the agency. The source told NBC that it was “an abuse of the Border Search Authority.” 

The implications of this watchlist and the increase in policing the press are worrying. We already know that Donald Trump has it out for the media. He has gone so far as to tweet that the press are the “enemy of the American people.” 

Using interrogation and intimidation tactics to harass journalists infringes their First Amendment rights. Press freedom means news media are not subject to censorship by the government, which includes not being bullied and intimidated into giving up information about a story. 

Having the independence to report and publish anything is central to the concept of journalism. Currently, only 13 percent of the world is allowed freedom of the press. The U.S. prides itself on democracy and being a free country. Without complete freedom of the press, there is no democracy.