The denial of visa extensions to three Chinese journalists, Xinhua’s New Delhi bureau chief Wu Qiang, and Tang Lu and She Yonggan of the organisation’s Mumbai bureau, which means they must leave the country by July 31, in no way puts New Delhi in the same league as Beijing when it comes to the freedom of the press. Over the last few years, China has delayed or denied visa extensions to several journalists — among those affected have been The New York Times’s Chris Buckley, Austin Ramzy and Philip Pan, al-Jazeera English’s Melissa Chan, and the French magazine journalist Ursula Gauthier, who wrote about Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs. David Barboza, The New York Times correspondent who enraged China with a long investigative piece on the riches of the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, leading the newspaper’s web sites being blocked and triggering the action against his colleagues, was however, left alone.
China has a history of troubled relations with the foreign media, a trait that India has managed to overcome in this century, despite its instinctual suspicion of foreign journalists. After the incident, The Indian Express spoke to some India-based foreign correspondents, all in Western media organisations. India has a separate category of visas for journalists that is valid for three months. Journalists on longer assignments have to apply for an extension, usually given for a year, after arriving in India. Bar the Chinese, none in the present lot of foreign correspondents has had run-ins with the Indian government over extensions, although there were complaints that the office of the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office (FRRO), where the stamping of papers and passports takes place after the Ministry of External Affairs grants the extension, is not the friendliest place in Delhi.
These visas place no restrictions on the areas the journalists can visit; it is accepted that to go to some areas, prior permission is required. This includes Tibetan settlements categorised as “restricted”, where two of the Chinese journalists are alleged to have gone without revealing their identity. Annie Gowen of The Washington Post, who did some reporting in Arunachal Pradesh, said her special permission took some time, but was eventually granted. One foreign correspondent who was based in India until recently said the government gaze on the foreign media was piffling compared to what foreign NGOs were being put through at the moment.
In the last few years, India has forced the departure of only one journalist with a valid visa. When Shogo Takahashi, the New Delhi bureau chief of the Japanese state broadcaster NHK, was denied a visa extension in 2010, two years after arriving in the country, he was told that his stories were focusing too much on poverty, according to the media rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres.
Before him, in 2002, Time magazine’s Alex Perry was hauled in for a rap on the knuckles by the Ministry of External Affairs for a report headlined “Asleep at the Wheel” that suggested that the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was unfit to be in charge.
Several other journalists have been denied visas — but while this is not exactly in line with India’s description of itself as the world’s largest democracy, it is different from expelling a journalist.
Having experienced a near-identical ejection myself, from Pakistan, for reasons that were never made clear to me, I would hesitate to pass judgment on the three Chinese journalists. There are no Indian journalists in Pakistan now, after two correspondents who went after me were also denied extensions on their visas. In August 2009, when I was still awaiting an extension 3 months after my visa had already expired, I was told by the external publicity wing in Pakistan’s Information Ministry that my visa would not be extended.
“You have two weeks to leave the country,” was the message conveyed to me by an official. No reasons given. The organisation that I worked with then, The Hindu, the only newspaper that had a correspondent in Pakistan at the time, fought to keep me there. Furious correspondence and some meetings later, I was given a 6-month extension so the newspaper could begin the process of sending a replacement.
At one of those meetings, when I asked the then Interior Minister Rehman Malik the reasons for my expulsion, he gave no reply but instead asked me, “What did you do?”, as if telling me to furnish the evidence against myself. Having had a problem with extensions from the beginning of my tour of duty in Pakistan, and after some un-bylined articles in English and Urdu newspapers labelled me as a “RAW agent”, I had some idea of what might have been behind the action. Those who followed me as The Hindu’s correspondents in Pakistan got shorter shrift, with even more restricted visas, and six-monthly extensions. One of them had to return within eight months.
The problem, really, is that many countries, and India is no exception, view visas to foreign correspondents not as something to further the ideal of freedom of the press or the free flow of information, but as an extension of their foreign policy. As such, they view journalists not as independent professionals, even when they are from privately owned organisations, but as an extension of the diplomatic missions of their country of origin. It is no coincidence that western journalists in India stopped feeling the heat about the same time as India improved its relations with several countries in the years after opening up the economy and the nuclear tests. But when diplomacy flounders, journalists are the easiest targets without the high costs. The expulsion of a journalist or even three serves the purpose of sending a message, but unlike the expulsion of a diplomat, it rarely takes relations to the brink.
It is odd that no media bodies, journalists’ associations, or even the Foreign Correspondents’ Association have made a noise about the expulsion of the Chinese journalists. Xinhua is a state-run wire service, but is internationally recognised as a media house. Only China has reacted to the Indian action with an angry editorial in Global Times. “We should take actions to display our reaction,” it said. “We should at least make a few Indians feel Chinese visas are also not easy to get.” This is high hypocrisy on the part of the Chinese. But by not speaking out against the practice of expelling journalists, or by saying that the Chinese have been paid back in their own coin, we end up condoning an action that is not good for media freedom.