As It Happens

Canadian photojournalist detained for hours, refused entry to U.S.

Ed Ou was stopped last month while on his way to cover the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. He was refused entry to the country.

Ed Ou was on his way to cover protests over Dakota Access Pipeline

Photojournalist Ed Ou says U.S. border guards detained him for hours and asked to search his cellphone. 'They said, "We just want to make sure that you're not posing next to any dead bodies."' (Ed Ou)

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Journalist Ed Ou has travelled the world for his work, and he's had his share of run-ins with authorities in places like Somalia, Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt. 

But he wasn't expecting problems getting into the United States.

In October, CBC News assigned the freelance reporter to cover the protests in Standing Rock, N.D., over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

They said, "We don't have to tell you why ... and we don't have to tell you anything."- Ed Ou, Photojournalist 

He didn't make it past U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Vancouver Airport, where his phones and notebooks were inspected by agents. 

In a statement to CBC News, the CBP said it doesn't discuss individual travellers but noted that all travellers are subject to inspection, which can include electronic devices. 

Here is part of Ed Ou's interview with As It Happens host Carol Off. The interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the full discussion by clicking on the player above.

Protesters are threatened by private security guards and guard dogs at a work site for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) oil pipeline, near Standing Rock, North Dakota, September 3, 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

Carol Off: What happened when you tried to go through customs?

Ed Ou: I was trying to fly from Vancouver, and immediately when I put my ... Nexus card through the booth I got directed to secondary [inspection]. For me, I've been working in the Middle East the last 10 years, so this is quite normal. 

One of the first questions they asked me was, 'When was the last time you were in Iraq?' [and] 'What are you planning on doing in Standing Rock?' I was very forthcoming because as a journalist, especially working in the Middle East, a lot the time we have to be careful of what we say. Journalism is mostly not allowed in a lot places in the Middle East. But being in the U.S., I figured, this is a democratic country, this is somewhere that respects privacy of journalists and respects freedom of the press.

And so, I was very straightforward, I told them I'm going to Standing Rock to cover these protests....They gave me a list of every country I'd travelled to in the last five years and they told me to fill in everywhere I'd been and why I had been to these places. 

An example of Ed Ou's photojournalism, this image captures 16-year-old Sharif Mohammed fishing from the shore facing the Hamar Weyne district, Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2007. (Ed Ou/Reuters)

CO: Tell us in what way things were different on this trip?

EO: After going through my history, they asked me to open up my cellphones to them. They said, 'We just want to make sure that you're not posing next to any dead bodies.' 

They wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to the Middle East to participate in extremist activities. 

I told them that, respectfully, as a journalist, I have a duty to my sources, to protect them, just as a lawyer would have the responsibility to protect their client's information, or a doctor would have a responsibility to protect their patient's information. So I told them I understand this is for security but at the same time I cannot do this.
Ed Ou took this photo of Palestinian children looking at mounted Israeli police officers securing the area around Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem's Old City, in 2008. (Ed Ou/AP)

CO: So you shut down your phones and you locked them. What did they do with your phones?

EO: Before I cross any border, I turn off all my cellphones anyways. The act of turning off your phones makes it so they cannot access the data inside. So then the only thing that the border security people can do is compel you to open them up, and that's when I refused. They did take out my SIM cards and it's unknown what they could have gotten with that, but even with your SIM card they can find out quite a bit about you.

On assignment for the New York Times in 2011, Ed Ou photographs the late Times journalist Anthony Shadid, middle right, as he interviews residents of Embaba, a lower-class Cairo neighbourhood, during the Egyptian revolution. (Ed Ou/New York Times/Associated Press)

CO: Not just your phones, they took your notebooks away. What did they do with them?

EO: Yeah, so, they went through everything that I had on me. They told me that at the border they have the access to search, retain, copy and go through everything that you bring on you. 

CO: After all this, were you allowed across the border? 

EO: No, I wasn't. 

After multiple interrogations, they said that I might be on a person-of-interest list and that I was being denied entry. When I pressed them further and asked them why, they said, 'We don't have to tell you why. This is our choice.' I told them this is a clear violation of press freedoms. I'm a journalist going to cover a story.

The Canadian journalist's case has garnered attention from groups in the U.S., including the Americal Civil Liberties Union, which says it sent a letter on Ou's behalf to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.