In 10 years only one of our journalists has been stopped at Heathrow and questioned but it happens virtually every time he goes through the airport, writes Channel 4 News Editor Ben de Pear.
When will the security services stop harassing our British-Somali Africa reporter Jamal Osman?
In the coming weeks we are broadcasting a series of films on Channel 4 News on migration, one of the major themes of our times. Asia Correspondent John Sparks will be reporting on the escape from North Korea and incredible journey across China of a mother and her son desperate to be reunited with their daughters and sisters, risking life and – literally – limb for a new life.
And our Africa reporter Jamal Osman has retaken the journey he travelled as a teenager fleeing Somalia’s civil war across Africa to Cape Town. Following the same route he meets other Africans fleeing repression, economic hardship and war. All have left loved ones, all are petrified, and all are to some extent traumatised by their journey, the loss of home, and perhaps what they experienced there.
By putting so much pressure on young British Somalis it was felt some were actually being radicalised and turned against their adoptive countries.
After two years in Cape Town, Jamal made it to the UK. On arrival he claimed asylum; as soon as he could he started working, in cafés, laundries, and eventually as a taxi driver. In the telling of his first exodus, Jamal realises how traumatised he was by what he had experienced in Somalia and by the act of alone fleeing the war there, as well as his family. It was an emotional and traumatic journey, which you will see in his reports. But it was also a hugely brave one and displayed the sort of resourcefulness which characterises Jamal’s reporting. He then put himself through university to study journalism and a few years ago got in contact with us at Channel 4 News.
Virtually from the start he was producing award-winning television; he exposed the selling of World Food Programme (WFP) aid in Mogadishu’s market, for private profit. He was the first to film a radical new Somali group al-Shabaab in their training camps. In the last three years as a reporter he has produced the most insightful, intelligent and revelatory reports on Somalia broadcast anywhere in the world and has rightfully won a whole host of awards.
At this point let me be clear about one crucial point. Jamal arrived as a refugee, but he is now a British citizen. Not only that but he also a journalist, employed by ITN for Channel 4 News. We trust his judgement, his reporting, his contacts and his integrity. The are certain protections for journalists in this country and we expect those to be applied to every journalist we employ, regardless of background, ethnicity, or subject area.
Jamal is almost unique in the UK as having been a refugee, become a British citizen, and now a reporter on the condition and plight of his homeland as well as those who have made it to Britain from Somalia, as well as many other stories. As a group Somalis in Britain come close to the bottom of most social indices. They are also one of the most cut off from mainstream British society. Perhaps crucially, until the advent of the jihad in Syria they were also viewed by the security services as the source of probably the biggest terror threat, given the rise of al-Shabaab that Jamal himself had first reported five years ago. As such, many young British male Somalis started feeling they were a targeted group. They claimed they faced harassment by security services trying to recruit them, were detained coming in and out of the UK, and many reported a reverse effect. By putting so much pressure on young British Somalis it was felt some were actually being radicalised and turned against their adoptive countries. Whilst the job of the security services is a vital and very difficult one; it is also essential to get the balance right between preventing attacks and the personal freedom of British citizens.
Earlier this year it became clear to me that Jamal is also subject to these same pressures. In the past three years Jamal has been stopped virtually every time he goes through Heathrow airport. He has been detained and questioned about Somalia for up to two hours. He has, he claims (and I have no reason not to believe him; that’s why he reports for us on television) been threatened with strip searches, been lied to, been called day and night on his mobile phone, been stopped on the street, and threatened. If this happening to a bona fide journalist, one wonders what is happening to the average British Somali, but that is not my immediate area of concern.
Jamal told us this was happening. I contacted the security services and wrote to them and a few weeks later I received a reply saying they saw no problem in what they were doing. Then last month Jamal visited his brother in Germany and on the way back, was stopped again, questioned, asked if he wanted to assist. We had naively hoped this would stop, but since it has not we are calling for this harassment of our journalist to stop here and now. If you want to know who Jamal is, look here.
In 10 years of travelling as a foreign affairs journalist, almost exclusively to either dangerous or war torn countries, and post 9/11 almost always to Muslim countries, I was never stopped by immigration officials and questioned. There are a dozen or so other journalists working for Channel 4 News of whom the same is true. Not a single one has ever been stopped (except one who had lost their passport). The only other consistent factor with all of them is their ethnicity; with a couple of exceptions all are white British.
Jamal is someone everyone at Channel 4 News is proud of working with. He is a brilliant and brave journalist, and we believe he is an important voice in British society, reporting on a marginalised group and revealing stories seen nowhere else. He is a success story of immigration. But the other day he told me he felt he would never be British; because he was not regarded as British. In the passport he carries, the same as my passport, inside the front page it famously reads, “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires… all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance”. This sentence, written as a declaration to foreign governments, needs to apply to every UK citizen’s treatment here, as well as abroad.
Follow @bendepear on Twitter