Al Jazeera journalist stopped and questioned at JFK airport

October 22, 2018

Mhamed Krichen, anchor and program host for Al Jazeera and board member for the Committee to Protect Journalists, was stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection when flying in to JFK Airport in New York, on May 23, 2018.

Krichen — who has previously reported for Reuters, Radio Tunis, MBC, and BBC Arabic — was flying to New York from Doha, Qatar, in order to attend a CPJ board meeting. He landed at the airport at around 8:45 a.m. He said that he presented a CBP agent with his Tunisian passport, bearing a B1 U.S. visa, and was directed to secondary screening. The officer, whom Krichen told CPJ was consistently polite and kind to him, then led him through a police area, fingerprinted him, and accompanied him to the baggage claim area. While waiting for the bags, the officer flipped through his passport —which is three, thoroughly stamped passports glued together — and asked him why he travels so much. He simply responded, “I am a journalist.”

Once Krichen retrieved his luggage, the officer ushered him into an interview room and began asking him for personal details, including his wife’s name and birthdate, her workplace, her nationality, their full home address, and his contact information. Krichen said that the officer also asked about his work — where he has traveled and why, the names of the programs he hosts, the topics they cover, and who he has interviewed. After these “typical” background questions, Krichen said, the officer’s questions turned to terrorism, “which he seemed obsessed with.”

The officer asked if he’d had any relationship with an individual involved with terrorism, interviewed someone accused of terrorism, or had any relationship with someone suspected of terrorism. Krichen said that he pulled out his phone and unlocked it to double check the name of a former colleague — Sami al-Hadj — who had been arrested in Afghanistan and detained in Guantanamo Bay for six years. Krichen had interviewed al-Hadj about his time in the prison. 

After asking once again if Krichen had any relationships with individuals suspected of or involved in terrorism, the officer and  Krichen went through his suitcases, piece by piece. After that, Krichen said, the officer asked to see Krichen’s unlocked cell phone. The officer asked Krichen if he uses his full name on Facebook and Twitter (he does) and then led him out to a waiting room while the officer walked to a nearby counter to examine the phone. Krichen said that he was able to observe the officer swiping through his phone for five to seven minutes, but he couldn’t see what the officer was browsing through.

Afterward, the officer made a call — Krichen told CPJ it appeared that he was calling a supervisor — and spoke on the phone for approximately ten minutes, all the while flipping through the notes he had taken during his interview of Krichen. Immediately after hanging up the phone, the officer stamped Krichen’s passport, returned his phone, and told him he was free to leave. Krichen said that the entire incident took about an hour.

Krichen told CPJ he considered asking why he had been stopped in the first place, as the officer never offered any explanation or apology for stopping him, but he decided against it. He said that he assumes he was selected at random, in part because he doesn’t want “to play the victim or the martyr.”

“I’m just glad I was only traveling with my phone and not my laptop,” Krichen said, “because they might’ve tried to search that too.”

According to a CBP directive released in January 2018, travelers are “obligated” to turn over their unlocked and unencrypted devices to CBP agents, who may perform “basic” searches of electronic devices without cause. The CBP directive states that “advanced,” or forensic, searches require “reasonable suspicion of activity in violation of the laws enforced or administered by CBP,” but basic lawful searches using less . The Supreme Court has upheld the so-called “border search exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, though it has not specifically ruled on the consitutionality of searches conducted in accordance with CBP’s January 2018 directive.

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