Nieman Fellowship is a lifesaver for Colombian journalist

  • By Guest
  • April 22, 2011

By Ian Tennant

Colombian journalist Hollman Morris is certain the Harvard Nieman Fellowship has saved his life.

Accused of bias against the Colombian government, and singled out by then-President Alvaro Uribe as a supposed sympathizer of the guerrilla group FARC, Morris was denied a visa by the United States on June 16, 2010, after receiving an invitation to study for a year at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. A U.S. consular official told Morris his his visa request was rejected under the "terrorist activities" section of the Patriot Act, reported Bob Giles in the Los Angeles Times.

In a presentation to students and professors April 21 at the University of Texas at Austin, organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Morris said that Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, launched a campaign to persuade the State Department to overturn its decision — the first time a prospective Nieman Fellow had been denied a visa by the United States since the creation of the program in 1937.

As an independent journalist and director of Contravía, a weekly television news program in Colombia, Morris had angered government officials with his coverage of victims of the violence that has besieged his country for decades. Morris and his family received threats, and the secret police launched an illegal smear campaign against him, which was later denounced in court. In addition, a paramilitary group issued a chilling threat against Morris and four other Colombian journalists in February.

Giles, Nieman Fellows, academics, activists and a wide array of groups from across the U.S. and Latin America lobbied on Morris' behalf. He received the visa more than a month after it was first denied.

"The point is, the Nieman Fellowship saved my life," he told the gathering.

His family is in a safe environment in Cambridge, Mass., and Morris said the year at Harvard will help him "re-confirm my commitment with those victims and my commitment with a journalism that is committed to building the narrative of those stories, the narrative of wars from the viewpoint of the victims."

Besides his talk to a group of UT journalism school faculty and students, Hollman also had an opportunity to show the new documentary "Impunity" that he co-directed with Juan Jose Lozano. The film focuses on the clamor for justice from thousands of victims of extreme right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia. The groups reached an agreement with the government to demobilize, but the film shows that the promise to punish the perpetrators of many crimes was not fulfilled. Among those unpunished crimes were massacres of hundreds or thousands of peasants.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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