EXPRESS CHECKOUT

I-Visas and freedom of press

Posted in Law + Social Policy, Mass Communication, Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 29 August, 2006

Journalist 

SPECIAL REPORT FROM EUROPE
Information visas (I-Visa): a Bush administration method for controlling the foreign media’s coverage of the United States
Wayne Madsen Report
August 28, 2006

You’re a foreign journalist and you want to visit the United States to cover a story. If you think it is as easy as hopping on an airplane, even if you are a citizen or resident of a visa-waiver country, guess again. Journalists wishing to travel to the United States — whether they are with print, television, radio, or Internet media — must first obtain an “I-Visa” from the U.S. embassy or selected consulates responsible for their jurisdictions. Freelance journalists who are not under contract to a U.S.-recognized media organization need not apply.

Journalists must fill out a detailed application in which they are required to outline what story they are writing about and they must personally visit the U.S. embassy and consulate for “administrative processing, biometric collection and a personal interview.” Biometric processing at the U.S. embassy in Copenhagen entails having one’s thumb electronically scanned. Journalists visiting some U.S. diplomatic missions for the interview cannot bring in “electronic devices (cell phones, PDAs, laptops ) [or] backpacks, suitcases and attaché cases.” At certain missions, U.S. embassy security personnel refuse to store such items during the interview process. Others confiscate cell phones and tag them for pick up after the interview process (needless to say, the interview process might last a bit longer if the local U.S. spooks decide to examine the journalist’s cell phone call list and perform certain “modifications.” At the Madrid embassy, the only bags that are permitted inside the compound are those having medical purposes, such as insulin kits.

Journalists must also provide their addresses in the United States and the names and addresses of people they will be interviewing. So much for freedom of the press and the protection of journalists’ sources.

The real rub comes with the I-Visa application fee. Journalists who believe they can pay the 85 Euro (US$ 108) fee in Germany and Denmark by check, cash, or credit card are out of luck. Certain U.S. embassies, like those in Copenhagen and Berlin, through a bank wire contrivance, require visa fees to be paid into special bank accounts established by the various U.S. embassies. In Germany, the Bush cronies have cut a deal with a small outfit called Roskos and Meier OHG, a 23-person subsidiary of the giant banking consortium, Alianz Group. Roskos and Meier has only been around since 1994 when Messrs. Roskos and Meier formed their company to provide insurance and financial services in the Berlin-Brandenburg area. Now they have a lucrative sweetheart deal with the U.S. embassy to confirm that visa fees have been paid from individuals applying for visas at the Berlin embassy and Frankfurt consulate. The visa payments go to a special account established at Dresdner Bank AG Berlin, Bank Routing Number (BLZ): 120 800 00, Account No. (Kontonr.): 405 125 7600. In Denmark, the journalist visa money (600 Danish Kroner) is wired to a special embassy account at the Jyske Bank Reg. No. 5013, account number 200200-2. Internet banking or bank-to-bank payments are not permitted. The U.S. embassy in Helsinki requires journalists to pay 85 Euros into Nordea Bank account #221918-16629.

In Spain, $100 in Euros must be deposited with the Banco Santander Central Hispano (BSCH), bank account: 0049-1803-54-2210316035. In China, a visa application fee of 810 RMB (US$101) can only be paid at selected branches of the CITIC Industrial Bank. In the United Arab Emirates, the $100 application fee must go to the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. In Cyprus, 46 Cyprus Pounds (US$ 102) lands in special LAIKI Bank account “American Embassy – MRV — Account Number: 070-21-074824.”

Morten Torkildsen, a special investigator for the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, stated the following concerning the Nicosia U.S. embassy’s favorite Cypriot bank in a 58-page report on Slobodon Milosevic’s secret foreign holdings. “”Popular (LAIKI) Bank, the island’s second largest bank, allowed a group of Yugoslav-controlled front companies to operate in defiance of UN sanctions. These companies supplied Mr. Milosevic’s government with fuel, raw materials, spare parts and weapons to pursue wars in Bosnia in 1992-1996 and in Kosovo in 1998-1999.” LAIKI’s largest shareholder (at 22 percent) is the powerful Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). Even with all the questions surrounding LAIKI Bank and its involvement in money laundering for Milosevic and his regime, the Cypriot bank easily purchased Belgrade, Serbia-based Centrobanka in January 2005.

Just think of all the various and differing U.S. embassy visa application fee requirements and bank accounts in all the countries around the world. Considering all the other financial malfeasance in the Bush administration, to what degree are these accounts audited? Can anyone spell “slush fund?”

UPDATE: 8/29: If one requires proof that there is massive fraud in the U.S. visa issuing process, consider this news story from the Aug. 27 edition of the newspaper The Hindu: “A senior State Department official has been charged with accepting gifts and trips to Las Vegas and New York with exotic dancers from an Indian national to speed up the visa process for a jewellery company. The official, Michael John O’Keefe, deputy Non Immigrant Visa Chief at the American Consulate in Toronto was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges, according to an indictment unsealed on Friday. Sunil Agrawal, a native of India and the chief executive of New York-based STS Jewels, has also been charged. It is said that Agrawal sent the State Department visa official the names of employees who needed to work in the company and O’Keefe apparently scheduled them outside the normal visa process. According to the indictment, O’Keefe supposedly “fast tracked” the applications and brushed aside objections from a subordinate who had noted that terrorists use jewellery to raise money. In return for the expedited service, O’Keefe was plied with gifts. Friday’s indictment, however, describes a scheme in which O’Keefe fast-tracked applications and approved some that had been rejected. The prosecution has said that this June after five approval visas for STS Managers, O’Keefe and two exotic dancers flew to Las Vegas.”

And there is no consistency in the visa fee program. At the U.S. embassy in London, they accept credit cards (but no debit cards) or bank transfer or bank cash payments (bank Giro) to a Barclays Bank special account.

What happens if the Bush cronies decide they do not like the story a foreign journalist will be pursuing? They will reject the I-Visa application — no explanation necessary. But if the rejected journalist expects a refund of his or her $108, $102, or $100, he or she can guess again. According to the U.S. embassy in Germany, “refunds of this fee are rarely granted, and generally only in cases in which the embassy has made an error in processing the visa application. In the case in which a visa request has been refused or an applicant has erroneously paid the fee twice, a refund will not be approved.” In Denmark, it does not matter if the U.S. embassy screwed up the application processing or not, refunds are not made under any circumstance.

What happens if the visa payment confirmation is delayed for some reason. Well, the journalist can call the U.S. Visa Information Service. But it is at a cost. Callers are charged 1.86 Euros (US$2.37) per minute. In Spain and Andorra, the US embassy in Madrid has figured out another phone scam. Landline phone inquiries about US visa status in Spain cost 1.09 Euros per minute but if someone calls on a cell phone, the charge is higher, 1.51 Euros per minute ($1.93/minute). That can get pretty expensive if some bureaucratic nincompoop puts a caller on hold. If a journalist phones the U.S. visa line in Spain from, say, Morocco or Portugal, an additional $10 per transaction charge is assessed. But you can charge that to your Visa or Master Card.

Only certain U.S. diplomatic missions process I-Visas. If you’re a journalist in Greenland or the Faeroe Islands and you want to cover a story in the United States, you must make a long trip east to Copenhagen before you travel west to the United States. The same cumbersome process goes for journalists in the Maldives (they must fly to Colombo, Sri Lanka), East Timor (figure on a trip to Jakarta, Indonesia — not friendly territory for East Timorese), Sao Tome (you must go to Libreville, Gabon), San Marino (visas only obtainable in Rome), Liechtenstein (no good to go to Zurich, which is a hop, skip, and jump away, you must go to the embassy in Bern), Monaco (no trip to the U.S. without going to the embassy in Paris first), and Grenada (not without a trip to Bridgetown, Barbados). There are countless other similar roadblocks thrown in the way of journalists wishing to travel to the United States.

In some cases, foreign journalists who carry the necessary I-Visa are, nevertheless, subjected to humiliating questioning and strip searches at U.S. airports. One Danish journalist was required to slip down to his skivvies, bend over, and have some perverted Homeland Security official stick his finger up his rectum. Some female journalists from such friendly countries as Britain and Australia have been handcuffed and sexually groped by other Homeland Security lechers and lotharios. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s grand dame of international public relations, Bush’s gal-pal Karen Hughes, who might even put off a Homeland Security sex maniac, continues to insist that she is improving America’s image abroad. As far as most international journalists are concerned, she is a complete joke. And so is George W. Bush. The State Department web page comically posts the following message from Bush to U.S. visa seekers: “America is not a fortress; no, we never want to be a fortress. We’re a free country; we’re an open society. And we must always protect the rights of our law — of law-abiding citizens from around the world who come here to conduct business or to study or to spend time with their family.” Yeah, right. And Bush thinks jamming fingers up the asses of arriving journalists is part of living in a free country.

Right now, it is fortunate that most countries are not reciprocating against U.S. journalists in kind. In fact, there are very few countries that require special visas for journalists. The United States and a few tin horn dictatorships are among the few countries that restrict admittance and travel for foreign journalists. Israel severely restricts media access to the West Bank and Gaza. On the other hand, Cuba provides freer access for foreign journalists than does the United States. It is just that a vocal jingoistic minority in southern Florida and their lickspittles in the Bush administration don’t want any American journalists to witness for themselves the relative freedom for foreign journalists to report from Cuba. Ask Cuban authorities about the total lack of restrictions on journalists reporting on and photographing conditions inside the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay from their side of the fence and then consider the draconian restrictions places on U.S. and foreign journalists inside the U.S. military concentration camp.

If the Republicans and neo-cons are not run out of Washington soon, the situation for American journalists abroad may change dramatically. And the public’s right to know will be the major casualty in such an event.

Meanwhile, in other news: The Calgary Sun, Bill Kauffmann – ‘Summer Stock’

‘Most pitiful attempt at fearmongering: Ever-ludicrous carnage carny George W. Bush’s blather that terrorists will follow home American troops withdrawing from an Iraqi civil war their divide-and-conquer strategy did so much to foment.

Though he’s notorious for having others read newspapers for him, Bush’s attention span also appears to require handmaidens, since we’ve recently been told ambitious swarthy plotters have been coveting airliners full of passengers and fuel headed for the U.S.

And last time we checked, American soldiers were still killing and dying to advance Iraq’s rebuilding, or at least the construction of the world’s largest U.S. embassy.

Most surefire news anesthetic: The triumphant return of wall-to-wall JonBenet Ramsey media coverage.

Just when the birth pangs of a new Middle East, homelessness and global warming become too inconvenient, we can seek refuge by exhuming a junior beauty queen who has been dead a decade.

But don’t worry — what Mark Karr digested on his plane ride back to bondage will balance out all the morbid and fluff with some genuine journalistic substance.

Maybe botox injections for embarrassingly elusive Mullah Omar would resuscitate interest in him.’

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