Warrantless searches of journalists at U.S. borders pose press freedom threat

New York, October 22, 2018 — The Custom and Border Protection (CBP) agency’s powers to carry out warrantless searches of electronic devices has serious press freedom implications, including weakening the ability of the media to protect source privacy, the Committee to Protect Journalists found in its report, “Nothing to declare: Why U.S. border agency’s vast stop and search powers undermine press freedom.”

The report finds that the border agency’s ability to access information from electronic devices, and its opaqueness about how that information is shared with other federal agencies, impacts journalism. The report is based on interviews with over two dozen journalists who said they found CBP’s secondary screenings and questioning over their reporting invasive, and data collected in partnership with Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The report comes as two bills are presented to Congress to try to limit the agency’s powers, and as rights groups mount legal challenges to fight invasive searches.

“Few things are more vital to a journalist’s work than the ability to maintain the confidentiality of their sources, but this duty is threatened at the border where U.S. law enforcement engages in warrantless searches of emails, contacts, and notes,” said CPJ North America Program Coordinator Alexandra Ellerbeck. “If the Department of Homeland Security does not change this practice, it will be up to Congress to ensure that searches at the border are in line with U.S. values of free expression. The alternative sets a poor precedent in the U.S. and a dangerous example to the world.”

CBP has ramped up electronic device searches. And, while the number of journalists who reported their devices being searched is tiny compared with the number of people who cross U.S. borders every day, those who spoke with CPJ said their experiences of being stopped has changed the way they approach work and travel. Some newsrooms said they have increased security training on digital security and best practices for crossing the border.

The report, written by Ellerbeck and CPJ North America Research Assistant Stephanie Sugars, includes recommendations to Congress, the Department of Homeland Security, and newsrooms. CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch wrote the accompanying piece, “CPJ’s slog to improve DHS and CBP policy toward journalists.” CPJ’s multimedia producer Mustafa Hameed produced an accompanying documentary.

RSF also released a report today, titled “Why is the United States making it so difficult for foreign conflict reporters to obtain visas?” analyzing cases in which foreign journalists were unable to obtain visas to travel to the U.S. due to denials on grounds of “terrorist activities” or because their applications remain pending indefinitely.

Note to Editors:
“Nothing to declare: Why U.S. border agency’s vast stop and search powers undermine press freedom” is available on CPJ’s website. For questions, or to arrange an interview with CPJ experts, email press@cpj.org.

CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide.