U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Documentarian returning from film festival questioned for second time

Incident Details

Date of Incident
March 24, 2023
New York, New York

Border Stop

Target Nationality
US Citizenship Status of Target
U.S. citizen
Denied Entry?
Stopped Previously?
Asked for device access?
Asked intrusive questions about work?

Documentarian Michael Rowley was questioned for the second time by U.S. border authorities when flying into New York, New York, on March 24, 2023. A plainclothes officer said he was “in [their] system” because of someone he filmed with in the West Bank.

March 24, 2023

Independent filmmaker Michael Rowley was flagged for additional security screening and questioned about his documentary work for the second time, on this occasion upon arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on March 24, 2023.

Rowley was first stopped in October 2019 when returning from his film screening in the West Bank city of Ramallah, via Tel Aviv, Israel. At that time, a plainclothes officer questioned him about the content of his first documentary, which focuses on the lives of young Palestinian men, as well as about the characters in the film and his methods of making it.

Rowley told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in November 2023 that he had traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, for the world premiere of his latest film, “Praying for Armageddon,” from March 17 to 24. When passing through passport control at JFK Airport, Rowley was again flagged for secondary screening and directed to an interview room for questioning.

The officer who questioned him indicated that the filmmaker had been added to a watchlist of some kind, and that she had reviewed the notes from the questioning on his previous trip.

“She said, ‘So you’re in our system because of someone that you filmed with,’” Rowley added. He told the Tracker that he believes she was alluding to the man he had been asked to identify when questioned in 2019. She also asked about whether he had traveled to any “places of interest” while he was abroad. When asked to elaborate she specifically named Iran.

He said he was released after about 30 minutes, but that when he obtained the boarding pass for the next leg of his travels it was marked with “SSSS” — secondary security screening selection. Rowley said he was then subjected to a full-body pat-down, an extensive search of his belongings and was asked to demonstrate that his laptop and cellphone functioned, which delayed him an additional hour.

In April, Rowley said he filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program in an effort to prevent further security screenings.

“It is clear from the questions that [Customs and Border Protection] officials have asked me that I am being singled out for questioning and additional security screening due to my First Amendment-protected journalistic and filmmaking activities,” Rowley wrote in his complaint, which asks that he be removed from any watchlist that he may have been added to.

Rowley told the Tracker that during the two trips that he has taken since, he has not been stopped for additional security or questioning, but that his experiences had affected his reporting.

“I was in the early stages of working on a new documentary here in Dallas, which I decided to put on hiatus indefinitely because of the realization of being on a watchlist and for fear of bringing government attention to the characters in the film,” Rowley said. “It certainly had a chilling effect on me and my work.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].