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From AJR,   October/November 2004

Foreign Relations   

Journalists from afar are dismayed by the end of a convention mainstay.

By Dana Hull
Dana Hull (danahull@gmail.com) is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.     


Covering the Democratic and Republican national conventions is a rite of passage for many American reporters, and indeed in Boston and New York the number of journalists seemed to dwarf the delegate count.

But for foreign journalists--particularly those from media outlets little-known in the United States or who are traveling to the U.S. for the first time--a convention can be an overwhelming professional and logistical challenge.

For decades, the U.S. State Department's Foreign Press Centers, or FPC, helped hundreds of foreign journalists navigate America's unique political system. FPC staffers guided foreign journalists in getting credentials, answered questions about the Electoral College, arranged for briefings with well-known party strategists and pollsters and organized trips to battleground states. The FPC had designated workspace at the conventions, complete with phone lines, fax machines, copiers and staffers on hand to offer international reporters research assistance.

But that suddenly changed this summer: The Bush administration cut the FPC's convention budget, and for the first time since 1984 there was no Foreign Press Centers presence at either major political convention.

"The reason the State Department gave was a budgetary consideration," says Jerry Gallegos, superintendent of the House Press Gallery, whose office oversees media credentialing for the conventions. "But the foreign press was convinced it was because they were not writing stories favorable to the Bush administration on the war in Iraq."

The State Department says it regrets the lack of a presence at the political conventions, but mentions it has nothing to do with what the foreign journalists have reported.

"I have not heard even a hint of this as a reason, so I give it no credence," says Paul Denig, director of the Foreign Press Centers. "They regret it and we regret it. But you can only do so much."

Jake Gillespie, a retired Foreign Service officer and former Foreign Press Centers director, told USA Today that the convention aid for foreign reporters costs about $450,000, or, "less than peanuts."

The funding request to cover the costs of press operations at both conventions was denied shortly before the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and rumors abound about which State Department or Bush administration official made the call. But foreign journalists echo Gallegos' assessment: They feel slighted and are convinced that the decision has more to do with what they are writing than with budget concerns.

"It's an insult," says Matti Jappinen, a New York-based correspondent for the Finnish newspaper Etela-Suomen Sanomat. "I feel the Bush administration dislikes the foreign media. They are annoyed at the foreign media and the critical reporting we have done about Iraq, homeland security and civil rights."

Jappinen, 57, has worked in the United States since 1970 and lives in Brooklyn, where his apartment doubles as his newspaper's bureau. He cannot remember a time when the foreign media were treated so poorly, he says, further annoyed by the fact that the U.S. government is now requiring foreign journalists to return home to renew their visas.

The special "I-visa" requirement is decades old, but in the past it was routinely ignored by immigration officials and journalists alike. Since September 11, however, the law has been enforced with renewed vigor. Some journalists who have arrived at U.S. airports without I-visas have been detained and then deported. But after some widely publicized cases, the U.S. government agreed to give journalists one-time waivers from the rule.

"I usually go home to Finland every summer, so for me it is not a big deal," Jappinen says. "But I still have not heard one good reason, or still been given a good explanation about how to proceed when it is time for me to renew next year."

When the United Nations was created in October 1945, scores of foreign journalists from around the globe came to the United States for the first time. Many flocked to New York City to cover the U.N. as well as economics, finance and the arts, and the U.S. government established the foreign press liaison office to assist them.

The concept evolved over the decades and today the State Department operates three Foreign Press Centers in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Though affiliated with the U.S. government--and keen to put reporters in touch with government officials--many reporters say the FPC have been helpful.

"They organized a trip to Silicon Valley in July, and I covered more ground than if I had tried to go on my own," says Lysiane Baudu, New York bureau chief for La Tribune, a French daily. "So in some cases it is very good. But you don't always need the help. We are journalists and we are very resourceful, and organizing a trip on your own is not the end of the world."

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