NEW YORK—News that the government is preparing to deport Memphis journalist Manuel Duran Ortega imminently is a deeply distressing development in a case that threatens to chill the First Amendment rights of protestors and journalists across the country who engage on vital issues related to race and immigration, PEN America said today.

Manuel Duran Ortega, a Memphis-area reporter and the founder and editor of Spanish-language news-site Memphis Noticias, has been in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since April. On November 13, Duran Ortega’s lawyers gave a press briefing in which they stated the Board of Immigration Appeals had denied their petition to re-open his case, and that they expect the government will attempt to remove him from the country “very rapidly . . . removal could come within the next two weeks.”

Duran Ortega, a Salvadorian citizen, has lived and reported in Memphis for over a decade. Duran Ortega’s reporting included stories on the Memphis Police Department, such as their previously-denied collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and their misplacing of the body of a murder victim. In April 2018, Duran Ortega was arrested by the Memphis Police Department while covering a protest. Duran Ortega, who was wearing a press badge, was the only journalist arrested.

While charges against Duran Ortega were quickly dropped, ICE arrested him as he exited the county jail and placed him in deportation proceedings. Duran Ortega’s attorneys have alleged that Duran Ortega was targeted for arrest, and subsequently for deportation, as a consequence of his critical reporting. Additionally, his attorneys as well as various press freedom organizations, including PEN America, have shared their view with the court that forcibly returning Duran Ortega to El Salvador—which has seen an increase in targeted attacks on journalists, especially those that engage in critical reporting—could result in putting his life at substantial risk.

“It is clear that journalist Manuel Duran Ortega would not be in deportation proceedings today if it weren’t for the fact that he was arrested while doing his job,” said James Tager, Deputy Director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America. “It is equally obvious what message this deportation sends to reporters and activists who work with or report on undocumented members of their community, or who are themselves undocumented: to shut up, sit down, and keep their thoughts to themselves. To anyone who believes in freedom of speech, such a message is insupportable.”

PEN America has previously expressed its vocal concern over Duran Ortega’s case. In July, PEN America joined an amicus before the court, indicating the organization’s belief that there is substantial evidence indicating that the government’s conduct towards Duran Ortega was motivated by his critical reporting. In October, PEN America submitted a petition to ICE, signed by over 80,000 people, calling for Duran Ortega to be released from detention. Earlier this month, PEN America also joined another amicus supporting Duran Ortega’s Petition for Review before the Eleventh Circuit.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org