The Fear of Fingerprints

Among European foreign correspondents based in the United States there is an uproar. Returning from their homelands after their end-of-the-year vacations, for the first time in history many had the unsavory experience of being asked at the border to provide their fingerprints and their pictures.

Most European countries are among the 28 nations whose citizens are theoretically exempted by the Homeland Security Department from having to comply with U.S.-VISIT, the just-introduced program of finger-scanning and photographing foreign nationals coming to the United States.

When going through customs at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, Enrico Pedemonte, U.S. correspondent for L'Espresso, Italy's leading newsweekly, was curtly asked to put his index finger onto an electronic scanner. Pedemonte then had to turn his head toward a hidden camera to have his mug shot taken.

"I don't have anything to hide and I don't fear any particular retribution from this request. It was, however, very unsettling to have to be fingerprinted like a criminal after life-long honesty and compliance with the laws both in my home country and here in the U.S.," Pedemonte says, when reached at his office in New York. "In addition, wasn't this supposed to be the land of the free speech?"

Pedemonte says he finds it "discriminatory" for the rest of the world that 28 countries are being excluded from the provision. And, he adds, finger-scanning journalists, even if only foreign correspondents, "may be the first step of an initiative directed at muting the freedom of press."

Pedemonte's reaction isn't unique or peculiar. Phones have been ringing off the hook at foreign media offices in the U.S. In the countries in which journalists are represented by trade associations, like in Italy, trade representatives are being asked to put pressure on the State Department to see that the fingerprinting program for foreign journalists is put to an end.

However, the problem isn't only with journalists coming from those 28 countries. Inquiries directed to the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department by some Italian correspondents in the U.S. revealed that other categories of citizens from other countries coming on a visa to the U.S. will be fingerprinted and photographed regardless of their country of origin. This means that scientific researchers, students, businesspeople, as well as journalists -- basically anyone who has a visa -- coming from those exempted countries will be asked to comply with the new tracking program.

The visa-waiver program only applies to nationals from those countries who come to the United States for less than 90 days on work or as tourists.

"This will affect the ability of the U.S. to keep its leading position in science, business and technology if foreign professionals coming to or dealing with the U.S. have to fear for their welfare," says another European foreign correspondent living in the United States who did not wish to be identified.

Many media professionals, some foreign journalists note, were fingerprinted in Italy and France during the fascist era. That practice led many to self-censor for fear of retaliation if they wrote anything critical of the regime. Some ended up in jail. Others, in a bid to save themselves, turned into the regime's rubber-stampers, or worse, into spies for the fascists. Today, some journalists fear that the new finger-scanning and photographing could have a similar chilling effect.

Paolo Pontoniere is the U.S. correspondent for Focus, Italy's leading monthly magazine.

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