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Whereas travellers to the US for "business or pleasure" may enter for up to 90 days visa-free (under the Visa Waiver Program / ESTA), you need a special one if you're "representing the foreign media".

http://london.usembassy.gov/niv/media2.html

No official justification is given above or indeed anywhere, but several journalists fall foul of it each year and are manhandled like terrorists as a result:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/jun/05/usa.weekend7

If the above is to be believed this policy wouldn't be supported by your average US citizen, yet the ongoing "need" for it was confirmed in a memo following the article. Again no reason for the need was specified, leaving most to speculate that America is afraid of being reported on.

America has one of the strongest traditions of freedom of speech in the world under the First Amendment. Singling out of foreign journalists stopped in 1952 but was revived in the year prior to the Guardian article. Why?

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    Tangentially related: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/35161/… – benxyzzy Mar 5 '15 at 15:11
  • I am not sure the article is entirely accurate. The law possibly wasn't strictly enforced but the rules for B-visas or the VWP haven't changed (in this respect at least) as far as I know. Also, prior to 1988, some form of visa would in any case be required (as the VWP did not exist then) so what is “revive a law that had been dormant since 1952, requiring journalists to apply for a special visa” supposed to mean? – Relaxed Mar 19 '15 at 7:29
  • The whole thing also comes across as entitled and short-sighted. The reality is that people who want to work in the US but also in the UK have to deal with bureaucratic traps and restrictions of all kinds and authorities detain and/or deport tens of thousands of people every year, all of which did not start in 2001. The author is not questioning any of that but somehow seems to think that she should get a pass because she is British (“friend or foe”) and a journalist… – Relaxed Mar 19 '15 at 7:33
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I don't have good sourcing, but my understanding is that:

  • The original motivation of I visa is the same as of L visa - it deals with people working in USA, with L-visa being foreign company sending a worker to work in US office, and I-visa being foreign media outfit sending a worker to work in US on a story.

Please note that this specifically refers to journalists visiting for the purpose of working as such - I visa isn't required of a journalist coming for vacation/tourism.

Most likely, the distinction between I and L visa is due to the nature of distinction between the work (e.g. media employment differs from office work) as well as special status of media being realized by US government as a result of events surrounding pre-(and during-) WWII propaganda efforts on both sides of a war.

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It's not a full explanation as the rules could easily be structured differently but there is a clear logic to all this:

  • B-visas do not allow working. You could certainly imagine special rules for representatives of the media but what would be the point since they need to apply for a visa anyway? Currently, US visas are neatly organized by purpose and each visa category has distinct requirements.
  • L-visas could also apply but they have rather onerous requirements (you must have worked for one continuous year for a company with a presence in the US). There are other special temporary workers visas (O, P or H) with complex restrictions.
  • Consequently, the I-visa is a way to fill the gap created by the rules for visitor visas and temporary worker visas while allowing easier access to the US to media representatives (they basically need to show that they indeed work for a media organization and not much more than that).
  • The visa waiver program only applies to citizens from a few selected countries and is built on top of the pre-existing visa system. Again, you could imagine creating a specific exemption for citizens of VWP countries but when it was created, eligibility for the VWP was simply modeled after the rules for B-visas.

I have no idea whether any of this was ever intended to exercise some control over foreign reporters but it kind of makes sense from a bureaucratic point of view.

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