April 23- 29, 2009
The criminalization of journalism
By Hernando Calvo Ospina
A few minutes later, the same voice told the startled passengers that the plane was heading for
The stopover in that French territory in the
Looking at those of us sitting in the back of the plane, two passengers said no terrorist could be there because "nobody there looks like a Muslim."
Again in the air, and preparing for another four hours of travel, a man who identified himself as the copilot came to me. Trying to look discreet, he asked if I was "Mr. Calvo Ospina." I told him yes.
"The captain wants to sleep, that's why I came here," he said, and he invited me to accompany him to the back of the plane. There, he told me that I was the person "responsible" for the detour. I was astonished.
My first reaction was to ask him: "Do you think I'm a terrorist?" He said no, that's the reason I'm telling you this. He also assured me that it was strange that this was the first time it happened on an Air
Shortly before we landed in
Finally, the copilot asked me not to tell anybody, including the rest of the crew. I assured him that I hadn't the slightest intention of doing so. I returned to my seat. Perhaps through nervousness, I began to notice that the members of the crew walked by me more frequently, looking at me with curiosity.
After landing, before the plane even reached the airport building, a woman's voice asked for "Mr. Calvo Ospina" to meet with a member of the crew as soon as the plane stopped. I did so. The young man picked up a phone and called someone. After hanging up, he told me I was no longer needed and could debark. He told me he knew about my problem and wished me luck.
In an instant, on two pieces of paper I ripped from a newspaper, I wrote the telephone number of my home and gave them to two passengers with whom I had chatted, telling them I was "the problem guy." They assured me they would phone my home, but didn't -- or they couldn't read my numbers.
A few yards from the plane, at the entrance to the terminal, we were awaited by several civilians who asked for our documents. My throat was drying up, due to nerves. I submitted my passport and was allowed to enter. While I waited on line at the immigration desk, I saw several men looking for someone. They stood behind a glass partition, a few steps away from the immigration agents but at a higher level.
The line moved slowly. I was moving, without any choice, to where I felt the worst might happen. But what could I do? The scandal of a man designated as "a terrorist" by the
Then I saw that the three or four men behind the glass partition had identified me. They looked at a computer screen and then at me. I feigned indifference. The man who looked like (and was) the leader, went down to the main floor to talk to the immigration agents. He pretended not to assume that I was "the culprit" but clearly he thought so. And the immigration agents looked into my eyes, unable to conceal that they knew I was the man they were waiting for.
My turn came. I greeted the man politely and he responded in like manner. He looked at the computer, wrote something and told me to wait a minute, said he needed to "verify" something in my passport. He asked me to follow him. I did. He led me to a room next to the glass-enclosed one. A uniformed agent was sitting next to the door, writing something. As soon as I put down my two valises, I told him I needed to go to the bathroom. He pointed me in its direction. I walked through two large semi dark rooms; I saw two people sleeping on the floor, on mats. The bathroom lights didn't work. I urinated without worrying if I hit the toilet seat or not. I couldn't see a thing.
I returned and sat down. I fumbled for a book, displaying tranquility, but my throat remained dry. A few minutes later, the same man who watched me from the glass enclosure returned and politely asked me to follow him. We walked into the glass-enclosed room, he sat behind a desk and asked me to sit in one of two chairs. As I did, I noticed that a man was standing behind me, to my left. A woman checked a computer and documents, paying no attention to us.
The first thing the man told me was that I shouldn't worry, that they only wanted to verify a few things. He said that "five information sources" in data bases had shown some information about me. He said they "simply" needed to make a "summary." He showed me a package that contained about 200 sheets of paper, stapled together in five booklets.
I calmed down, forgot about my dry throat and told him: "Ask whatever you want. I have nothing to hide." He repeated that it was a simple, brief matter and that I could leave later. Knowing the police, I had my doubts.
I asked him if those many sheets of paper said that I was guilty of something. The man who was standing answered that I was there at the request of
Then I asked them: "So, am I to blame for the plane's rerouting?" They said no, they understood it had been a mere technical stopover. I told them they knew it wasn't so, that the plane's captain had told everyone that the stopover was due to a passenger. They smiled, looked at each other, and resumed the questions. They asked me for my name, date of birth, residence, etc. Nothing special, nothing that wasn't already in my documents. The seated officer kept repeating that I could leave without any problem in a few minutes. The standing officer posed the more "remarkable" questions.
"Are you a Catholic?" he asked. I answered no, but I am not a Muslim either, knowing how "dangerous" this religious belief has become to certain policemen.
"Do you know how to handle firearms?" I told him that the only time I held one I was very young; it was a shotgun and I was knocked down by the recoil. I never even went through military service, I said. In fact, I added, "my only weapon is my writing, especially to denounce the American government, whom I consider terrorist."
They looked at each other, and the seated man said something I already knew: "That weapon sometimes is worse than rifles and bombs."
They asked me why I was traveling to
That was basically the interrogation, which seemed more like a chat. The notes made by the seated man did not fill a page. The notes made by the other man did not fill a notepad page. It seemed to me that the latter worked for a more specialized intelligence agency. At no time did either official speak aggressively or threateningly. They were very courteous and proper.
Finally, they returned my identification papers after photocopying them. And we parted with a handshake. It was almost 2 a.m., Sunday, April 19, 2009. At 10:30 a.m. I boarded a plane for
How much did it all cost? Only Air
How far will the
Hernando Calvo Ospina, a Colombian journalist and writer, lives in
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