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Vancouver reporter interrogated and denied entry at U.S. border

Award winning photojournalist Ed Ou was detained for over 6 hours at YVR Airport

Ed Ou, right, uses a camera to shield himself during clashes between anti-government protesters and pro-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution in January 2011.

Guy Martin/Submitted

Ed Ou, right, uses a camera to shield himself during clashes between anti-government protesters and pro-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution in January 2011.

A veteran Canadian journalist was on his way to the North Dakota’s Standing Rock protest in October when he was detained for six hours and refused entry into the U.S. 

Vancouver resident Ed Ou says he cooperated fully during the interrogation but when the U.S. border guards asked him to open his cell phones up for inspection, he refused. Then, he was denied entry into the U.S., barring him from completing his assignment as a freelance reporter for CBC.

The international-award winning photojournalist has spent the past 10 years working in conflict zones and says he was shocked that this happened at YVR Airport, in the city he grew up in.

“I thought for a second that being at the U.S. border, I could just proudly proclaim I’m a journalist,” said Ou, who recently moved back to Vancouver from the Middle East.

“So to have to keep my guard up, even back home in the West, is truly quite disturbing for me.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to U.S. Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requesting an explanation as to why Ou, who has travelled to the U.S. multiple times, was subject to interrogation and denied entry into the country.

The union has not received a response from Homeland Security or CBP.

The lawyer handling the case believes CBP used the interrogation as a “fishing expedition” for sensitive information, putting Ou’s confidential sources at risk.

“We think that this case can serve as a cautionary tale for many journalists and we’re hoping we can raise awareness of what CBP claims it can do at the border,” said Hugh Handeyside, an attorney with ACLU.

Ed Ou stands atop a Kyrgyz military tank while covering a flareup of violence after ethnic Kyrgyz mobs rampaged through minority Uzbek enclaves, burning homes and businesses in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Marina Gorobevskaya/Submitted

Ed Ou stands atop a Kyrgyz military tank while covering a flareup of violence after ethnic Kyrgyz mobs rampaged through minority Uzbek enclaves, burning homes and businesses in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

U.S. Custom and Border Protection said it would not comment on individual cases but provided this statement:

“Keeping America safe and enforcing our nation's laws in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully examine all materials entering the U.S.”

The agency performed 4,764 electronic media inspections in 2015, which comes out to 0.0012 per cent of travelers, according to a CBP spokesperson.

The question of whether authorities have the right to search password-protected cellphones at the border is being contested in both Canadian and American courts.

Border guards are legally able to search people’s possessions without a warrant at border crossings but that should not extend to people’s phones if they are password protected, argues B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director, Josh Paterson.

“[Smartphones] are portals to huge volumes or private personal information. Ordinarily, authorities would need a warrant to access those kind of information.”

He advises people – especially lawyers, doctors, and journalists – to keep any device with sensitive or confidential information at home if they plan to cross the border.

Ou plans to try entering the U.S. again to cover the Standing Rock protests.

“For as long as I have to stand up for journalists abroad, I need to do the same thing in Canada and the US. You can’t choose democracy à la carte.”

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