Pakistan has denied a visa extension to the last remaining Indian journalist reporting from its territory, Press Trust of India‘s (PTI) Rezaul Hasan Laskar.
With this, neither country will now have any reporter based in each others’ capital. Although this situation has been fairly common for the two countries during war, it has rarely happened in peace time. Both allowed journalists from each others’ countries to continue reporting even during the strained relations after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008.
But the new Nawaz Sharif-led government, lionized for the role it played to support freedom of media and judiciary when in opposition, has in recent weeks refused to extend visas of both the Indian journalists working in Pakistan.
The Hindu‘s Anita Joshua is back in India after Pakistani authorities rejected her request that her visa be extended. Stranger, however, is the case of the Laskar who in one of his tweets on 19 June announced that he is “being booted out”. His Twitter bio now begins with “Deportee” as a description.
Laskar was PTI‘s Islamabad correspondent for the past almost six years. He is likely to return to India early next week and has been searching for a caretaker for his cat after he leaves for India.
Urgent: can anyone help find a home for stray Persian mix black cat? Very friendly, has few small health problems like mouth infection.
— Rezaul Hasan Laskar (@Rezhasan) June 21, 2013
Friendly isn’t how Laskar describes his last few days dealing with visa authorities in Islamabad.
Last (hopefully) visit to the most horrid horrid visa office I’ve had the misfortune of stepping into.
— Rezaul Hasan Laskar (@Rezhasan) June 20, 2013
Another tweet was more forthright.
— Rezaul Hasan Laskar (@Rezhasan) June 19, 2013
Laskar, who is still in Pakistan, declined to comment. In New Delhi, a source said Pakistani authorities have also rejected the visa application of PTI reporter, Snehesh Alex Philip, who was to replace Laskar.
@ArchisMohan Answer still is NO.
— Rezaul Hasan Laskar (@Rezhasan) June 25, 2013
Indian government officials are flummoxed at the turn of events. The Nawaz Sharif government was expected to strengthen India-Pakistan bilateral ties and protect freedom of media. But in contrast freedom of media seem to be shrinking and the financial support provided to Jamaat-ud-Dawa – an outfit that is known to have played a key hand in planning 26/11 – hasn’t exactly been a friendly gesture towards India. This, despite the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dispatching his special envoy Satinder Lambah to Islamabad to meet the new Pakistani leadership.
A Pakistan High Commission spokesman, when contacted, claimed they had extended Joshua’s visa a couple of times and accorded her all possible help to cover the recent national elections but added that her tenure was now over. He said Pakistani authorities were processing the visa application of Joshua’s replacement.
Joshua told StratPost that her replacement had applied for visa while she had applied for an extension, in case her replacement didn’t get a visa. Joshua said she was formally informed by the caretaker government a fortnight before her visa was to expire that she would not be given another extension. Her replacement is yet to get her visa. Joshua said this wasn’t the first time this had happened. “I was issued a visa to Pakistan the first time only after my predecessor left the post,” she said. But in Laskar’s case, there will be no replacement after Pakistan rejected Philip’s visa application.
The current arrangement between the two governments allows two journalists, one each from a news wire and a newspaper, in each others’ country and another from a newspaper. So, PTI could have its representative in Islamabad while the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) could have a reporter in New Delhi. But APP has had no representative in India for some years now. The last Pakistani journalist to have worked in India was Javed Jadoon of Radio Pakistan, who left in 2011.
Indian government officials claimed they have never discouraged APP or other Pakistani media outlets from posting their journalist in India and found it strange that Pakistan was unwilling to extend or provide a visa to PTI correspondents.
The Pakistan High Commission spokesperson said Laskar has spent seven years in Pakistan when the usual tenure is of three, claiming further that PTI had a Pakistani journalist reporting for it from Lahore – insinuating that there was no need for any Indian journalist to report for PTI from Pakistan. He further claimed that most Indian media outlets- both print and television like NDTV, Mail Today, Times Now, etc. – had Pakistani journalists reporting for them. “We have allowed over two dozen Indian media houses to employ Pakistani journalists to report for them. We are not trying to muzzle freedom of press,” said he. The spokesperson said Laskar had until the end of June to return to India. Laskar clarified in response to this story that he arrived in Pakistan on September 29, 2007, slightly less than six years back.
If anything, the spokesperson complained, it was India which muzzled freedom of media by not allowing cable networks to beam Pakistani entertainment channels. He said Indian entertainment channels were allowed to beam in Pakistan and have a wide viewership while not a single Pakistani television channel could be viewed in India. “Don’t you think this is unfair?” the spokesperson asked.
But India disagrees that rejecting visas of Indian journalists or inconveniencing them may be Islamabad’s way of telling New Delhi that it should encourage cable television networks to beam Pakistani channels. “They have got it all wrong. We haven’t asked any cable television network to not show Pakistani entertainment channels. In India, television industry is governed by market principles. Cable television networks beam channels that are popular. Unfortunately, Pakistani channels aren’t which is evidence why Indian channels are so popular there,” said an Indian official.
It remains to be seen whether the Indian side takes up this issue. Pakistan could probably do worse than granting visas to Indian journalists as CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) go.
Last month, Islamabad bureau chief of The New York Times, Declan Walsh was expelled by the Pakistan government, when he was given 72 hours to leave the country.
The expulsion order stated: It is informed that your visa is hereby canceled in view of your undesirable activities. You are therefore advised to leave the country within 72 hours.