April 23- 29, 2009
The criminalization of journalism
The U.S. prohibited an overflight by an Air France airliner because journalist Calvo Ospina was on board
By Hernando Calvo Ospina
Air France Flight 438, from Paris, was to land at Mexico City at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 18. Five hours before landing, the captain's voice announced that U.S. authorities had prohibited the plane from flying over U.S. territory. The explanation: among the passengers aboard was a person who was not welcome in the United States for reasons of national security.
A few minutes later, the same voice told the startled passengers that the plane was heading for Fort-de-France, Martinique, because the detour the plan needed to take to reach its destination was too long and the fuel was insufficient.
The stopover in that French territory in the Caribbean would be only to refuel the plane. Exhaustion was becoming an issue among the passengers. But the central question, spoken in undertones, was the identity of the "terrorist" passenger, because if the "gringos" say it, "it must be because he must be a terrorist."
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 France plane.
Shortly before we landed in Martinique, a stewardess had told me that, in her 11-year career, nothing like that had ever happened to her.
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 United States could not gain me any supporters. I had to go on. Nothing weighed on my conscience; nothing weighs still.
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 U.S. authorities. He said I should know that, after Sept. 11, 2001, the Americans had stepped up their "cooperation" work.
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 Nicaragua the following day, and I explained that I had to write a story for Le Monde Diplomatique. They asked me for my personal address, as well as the home phone and cell phone numbers, which I gave them without hesitation. They asked me if I had children. A girl and a boy, I answered. The standing man, who by then had sat down next to me, said calmly: "How nice that you have a boy-and-girl couple. That's nice." He sounded almost sincere.
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 Managua without any difficulty. But I still think that it was a dream bordering on a nightmare. I still don't believe that I was "guilty of detouring an Air France 747 because of the 'fears' of U.S. authorities."
How much did it all cost? Only Air France knows. It had to pay for hotel rooms and food for at least half the passengers, who missed their connections. I witnessed the other passengers' exhaustion, especially the children, some of whom began to vomit, fearing that among them was a "terrorist." I also saw the tranquility of the crew members in my presence. Later I learned that all of them were aware of the situation, but it didn't seem to me that they believed I was guilty of a crime.
How far will the U.S. authorities' paranoia go? And why do Air France and the French authorities continue to keep silent about it all?
Hernando Calvo Ospina, a Colombian journalist and writer, lives in France.
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