Monday, April 4, 2016

Why a Star reporter was denied entry to British Virgin Islands

When a Star journalist went to the British Virgin Islands to see whether reforms to combat tax evasion were working, he was detained at the border and put on the first plane out.

Toronto Star reporter Marco Chown Oved poses in front of a 10-seat Cessna in San Juan, Puerto Rico before the short flight to Tortola, British Virgin Islands, where he was detained at the border and then deported. Despite a scheduled interview with the governor of the British Overseas Territory, immigration officials wouldn't let the journalist in.

By: Marco Chown Oved Staff Reporter, Published on Monday, April 04, 2016

For an island that claims to be a major Caribbean tourist destination, it’s sure hard to get to the British Virgin Islands.

The airstrip on the principal island of Tortola is so short that big planes can’t land, forcing visitors to fly to Puerto Rico and switch to a small 10-seat Cessna for the final 40-minute hop.

I climbed aboard along with a British banker and his family and was instructed to sit in the co-pilot’s seat next to Danielle, our captain. When Danielle held open the window with one hand and maneuvered the plane onto the runway with the other, I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical trip.

As we took off, I rehearsed what I would say at the border. While the BVI doesn’t require visas from Canadians, as soon as I said I was a journalist, I was told I would need a permit. No one could tell me which one, however.

Weeks before, after securing an interview with the islands’ British-appointed governor, I was instructed to obtain a film permit, even though I wouldn’t be filming. When I submitted my application, they told me I didn’t need one. Instead, I should get a work permit. But the work permit couldn’t be issued without a film permit. And around and around it went.

After a bumpy flight, we entered a nearly deserted terminal and the lone immigration officer asked me what I had come to do.

“Interview the governor,” I replied.

He glanced up and peeled back the corner of his desktop calendar like a poker player looking at his cards. Head moving back and forth, he compared my passport to whatever was underneath before ushering me into an office with shabby wooden furniture and a broken air conditioner.

“Wait here,” he said and locked the door behind him.

After weeks of phone calls, I had determined that no one in the BVI was interested in talking.

Neither the premier, the minister of finance, nor the head of the financial regulation body would agree to meet me. The director of the business college balked at a sit-down interview. The head of a major law firm declined an off-the-record chat through her assistant.

This is a place that doesn’t tolerate scrutiny. In 2013, shortly after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a leak of documents showing that anonymous BVI companies were being used by government officials from around the world, a French reporter with Le Monde witnessed a high school teacher instruct her class about the threat posed by journalists.

“ICIJ has caused us a lot of harm,” she told the students. “We have to defend ourselves. Otherwise we will lose our jobs and our income.”

 A 10-seat Cessna sits on the tarmac at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. This is the plane that was used to deport reporter Marco Chown Oved from the BVI when he was detained at the border. 

During the same trip, BVI’s first lady, Lorna Smith, walked out of an interview as soon as she discovered the reporter, Anne Michel, was collaborating with the ICIJ.

Knowing this, I didn’t mention the ICIJ. I approached local officials sympathetically, saying I wanted to present their side of the story, to understand how their country had been affected by the negative attention. I knew they were hesitant; I didn’t know they were hostile.

A tall woman entered the office and introduced herself as Officer Robertson, head of immigration. I explained that I had an appointment with the governor and had submitted the necessary paperwork. She picked up the phone, spoke for a minute, then said: “We have no trace of you.”

I asked her to call the governor’s office. No can do. I pulled out all the official letters, documents and itineraries I had submitted and offered to show her the emails from the governor’s assistant. Nothing would make her budge.

“I cannot admit you,” she said. “No one is allowed to work in the BVI without a work permit.”

I protested that many journalists had been admitted without permits. I argued that I was being transparent and had nothing to hide. If she made it impossible to enter the country openly as a journalist, future reporters would be forced to sneak in posing as tourists. She was unmoved.

(An Australian documentary film crew, another media partner in the ICIJ investigation and set to arrive days after me, didn’t board their flight after hearing of my experience. Instead, they chartered a yacht and arrived claiming to be tourists. Immigration interrogated them for an hour and eventually allowed them in, but they were only able to film with a secret camera.)

In a last-ditch effort, I suggested Robertson might get in trouble for sending away someone who had been invited by the head of state. She smiled and simply said: “The governor will be informed.”

The next plane landed barely an hour after I arrived. A group of South African musicians sauntered through in their Ray Bans and Yankees caps and had their passports stamped immediately. Officer Robertson informed me that the plane was returning empty to Puerto Rico and I was quickly bundled aboard. In total, I spent one hour and five minutes in the BVI.

In San Juan, the American border guard laughed when I told him my story.

“They wouldn’t let in a journalist? What are they afraid of?” he asked.

That’s a good question, I said.

Original article can be found here:

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