BOGOTA, Colombia – BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The U.S. government has denied a visa to a prominent Colombian journalist who specializes in conflict and human rights reporting to attend a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University.
Hollman Morris, who produces an independent TV news program called "Contravia," has been highly critical of ties between illegal far-right militias and allies of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in Latin America.
The curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, which has offered the mid-career fellowships since 1938, said Thursday that a consular official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota told him Morris was ruled permanently ineligible for a visa under the "Terrorist activities" section of the USA Patriot Act.
U.S. Embassy and State Department officials refused to confirm the visa denial, citing privacy laws.
"We were very surprised. This has never happened before," said the Nieman curator, Bob Giles. "And Hollman has traveled previously in the United States to give speeches and receive awards." He said he had written the State Department to ask it to reconsider the decision.
Giles told The Associated Press by telephone that the only visa issues ever to arise with foreign Nieman Fellows have been over concerns they might try to remain in the United States — clearly not the issue in Morris' case. Colombia's President-elect, Juan Manuel Santos, was a 1988 Nieman Fellow.
"We're frankly shocked. We feel it's outrageous," Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said of the visa denial.
He said the committee had discussed its concerns with State Department officials but was not provided with an explanation.
"They told us they discussed this with Hollman and that's just not true," Simon said.
The 41-year-old Morris, one of 12 foreign journalists admitted to the Nieman program for the 2010-2011 academic year, is among the most controversial chroniclers of Colombia's long-running leftist insurgency.
Among international awards he has received is one from Human Rights Watch in 2007 in which he was praise by Executive Director Kenneth Roth for "courage, an unswerving commitment to justice and genuine concern for the rights of all victims."
On various occasions, President Uribe has accused Morris of collaborating with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which killed Uribe's father in a 1983 botched kidnapping.
On Feb. 3, 2009, Uribe called Morris "an accomplice of terrorism" posing as a journalist after Morris showed up with FARC rebels to cover the insurgents' liberation of four Colombian security force members.
Morris was also among journalists, judges and opposition politicians whose phones were illegally tapped by Colombia's DAS state security agency.
Nearly two dozen former DAS officials have been arrested on criminal conspiracy charges in the scandal and are awaiting trial.
Morris is listed in a 2005 DAS memorandum obtained by prosecutors someone being under surveillance for showing "opposition tendencies to government policies."
Reached by the AP, Morris would neither confirm nor deny that he had been turned down for the visa.
"Things are in motion," he said, adding that he had obtained a DAS document that described a campaign to discredit him internationally, including by stripping him of a visa.
Giles said the U.S. consular official cited Section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Patriot Act as the reason for the visa denial. It renders ineligible for a U.S. visa anyone who engages in terrorist activities, belongs to a terrorist organization or endorses terrorist activities.
The FARC, Latin America's last major guerrilla army, is listed as an international terrorist organization by the State Department. The United States has given Colombia more than a half billion dollars a year since 2000 to combat the FARC and drug trafficking.
E-mails written by Morris found on the laptop of a rebel commander slain in a March 2008 Colombian air raid indicate he served as an intermediary several years earlier between the FARC and French diplomats who were trying to negotiate the release of famed former hostage Ingrid Betancourt.
Colombian prosecutors opened an investigation into Morris but it was shelved without charges ever being filed, Hermes Ardila, Colombia's chief anti-terrorism prosecutor, told the AP.
Associated Press reporter Libardo Cardona contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS spelling of 'offered' in third graf)