As Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party sets to take charge of the Indian government on May 26, its first challenge has come from across the borders. In a setback to even the hope of rekindling Indo-Pak relations, the Pakistan government recently ordered the only two Indian journalists stationed in the country to leave immediately. In the order passed recently, Snehesh Alex Philip of The Press Trust of India and Meena Menon of The Hindu received letters telling them that their visas would not be renewed. Both had been in Pakistan for less than a year. No explanation was given either to them or the India government for the sudden expulsion.
It is no secret that Pakistan has become increasingly dangerous for journalists, but restrictions put on the movements of Indian reporters are stricter than those applied to other foreign journalists. This is despite the continuous public assurance of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that he wants to improve relations with India and Modi has already invited him to his swearing in. However, Pakistan’s military remains deeply suspicious of both journalists and India. Last year, Islamabad had expelled a reporter from The New York Times.
There is a written agreement between the Pakistani and Indian governments that allows two correspondents from each country to be stationed in the other’s capital. For several years now, no Pakistani journalist has requested for visa to be posted in India, though Delhi has assured that they would be willing to accommodate two Pakistani journalists. In the past, journalists from APP and Radio Pakistan were posted but because of financial constraints they were called back. The Indian government has been very liberal in issuing visas to Pakistani journalists and dozens of them have visited in their personal capacity or as guests of the Ministry of External Affairs.
Therefore, this blow to the freedom of press registered strong protests from several countries. The Indian government termed the step as ‘retrograde’ and asserted that free flow of information between India and Pakistan has long been recognized as an important confidence building measure. Salman Khurshid, now the former minister for External Affairs, had warned soon after the announcement: “Any such action on the journalists is not good for ties.” Even the Asian Human Rights Commission asked Pakistan to “take the situation in hand and show restraint on such sensitive issues which might bring two nuclear states closer to destabilising the entire region.”
Reportedly, the step has been taken as a tit-for-tat measure after India denied visas to Pakistani pilgrims who wanted to visit the Ajmer Sharif. These were followed by reports of alleged media tie-ups. There has been a recent media war in Pakistan where there have been allegations that the country’s Jang Group was working on an Indian agenda through the Aman Ki Asha programme.
However, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs denied these charges and said India should not be involved in the ongoing controversy in Pakistan on media freedom. It is also being said that the decision has been taken by the military establishment and not the government. Incidentally, even the Pakistani media has openly criticized its government over its recent decision. Leading Pakistani daily, The Dawn, said it was “unfortunate” that the state resorts to expelling foreign journalists for unexplained reasons and in such an ungracious manner. “Both were first curtly told over the phone that their visas would not be renewed and they would have to leave by May 20; the official written communication was delivered only later,” The Dawn said in an editorial.
Ironically, the expulsion of the two journalists has come at a time when India is on the verge of forming a new government and has expressed hope of improving ties. In his last interview to Times Now’s Arnab Goswami, soon-to-be Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated the commitment to improve relations with Pakistan despite repeated terror attempts and ceasefire violations.
When asked if India will continue talks with Pakistan even if it remained high on terror, Modi asked Arnab to be positive. “Why are you being negative? I believe that as the country advances in all aspects, we shall reach a positive relationship with Pakistan,” he said. Despite such optimism, Pakistan’s decision may only serve as fodder to the anti-Pakistan forces in India.
Political and social concerns apart, the step is a poignant and embarrassing reflection on the freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press in Pakistan, at a time when the nation’s government needs to reassure the media that its wings will not be clipped. The Nawaz Sharif government needs to ponder if its own insecurity about presence of foreign journalists is worth sending them packing.
Not only from the point of view of Indo-Pak relations but also from giving journalists the space they deserve, Pakistan needs to seriously rethink its decision. However, it remains to be seen how the new Modi government will react to this order. If peace is on the agenda of both the countries, every step must be carefully analyzed. Decisions like these will only encourage fundamentalism on both sides and promote extremism. And at the crucial juncture where both countries stand, none can afford these.