Australian journalist says Indian government pressured her to leave

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NEW DELHI — An Australian journalist with the country’s public broadcaster was pressured to leave India after Indian authorities expressed anger over her reporting on Sikh separatism and informed her that her journalist visa would not be renewed, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the journalist, ABC South Asia bureau chief Avani Dias, said Tuesday.

The ABC, the only Australian media organization with resident journalists posted in India, said in an article published on its website that “weeks of lobbying” by Australian diplomats and the office of Foreign Minister Penny Wong prompted the Indian government to overturn its decision and give Dias a two-month visa extension, but the reversal came less than 24 hours before Dias was due to leave the country. Dias flew to Australia on Friday, the first day of India’s national elections.

“It felt too difficult to do my job in India,” Dias said in a new episode of her podcast series, “Looking for Modi,” that was released by the ABC on Tuesday. “I was struggling to get into public events run by Modi’s party, the government wouldn’t even give me the passes I need to cover the election, and the ministry left it all so late that we were already packed up and ready to go.”

Indian officials said Dias was “found to have violated visa rules while undertaking her professional pursuits” and characterized her account as “not correct, misleading and mischievous.” The officials said Dias was granted a visa extension on April 18 but chose to leave India on April 20. She would have been free to cover the elections had she stayed, they added.

Dias’s case marked the first time in years that a foreign correspondent on a resident journalist visa has left India under such circumstances. But many other foreign nationals working as journalists under other visas have faced mounting pressure in India.

This year, India stripped French journalist Vanessa Dougnac — who had worked in India for 23 years for newspapers including Le Croix and Le Point — of her Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, a permanent residency status that is granted to foreign nationals who are married to Indian citizens or have Indian heritage.

India’s Home Ministry accused Dougnac of producing “malicious and critical” reporting that created a “negative perception” of India, inciting disorder and traveling to restricted areas, according to the Indian news website ThePrint. Dougnac denied misconduct and returned to France on Feb. 16 after French officials unsuccessfully appealed her case during a visit by President Emmanuel Macron to New Delhi.

Since 2021, the Indian government has required OCI holders to apply for separate permission to work as journalists, lawyers or missionaries. But authorities have denied reporting credentials for at least six Western journalists, including high-profile employees at the BBC and Al Jazeera. These foreign nationals had been living in India and working as journalists for years before the government began its clampdown, forcing several to leave.

In 2023, Indian tax authorities raided the BBC newsroom in India shortly after the broadcaster aired a documentary in Britain that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi .

In her latest podcast episode, Dias said she was told by Indian officials that a 30-minute program she produced on the Khalistan separatist movement and the Indian intelligence agency’s alleged assassination of Khalistan leaders abroad had “gone too far.” Indian officials also took issue with her previous podcast episodes, which have delved into Modi’s personal life, she recalled.

Dias declined further comment.

The Indian government considers the Khalistan movement and its supporters to be threats to national security and ordered YouTube to take down the ABC episode in India after it was released in March. YouTube complied with the order. In the wake of Dias’s departure, an unnamed Indian official told the Hindustan Times on Tuesday that her documentary “glorified terrorism,” lacked objectivity and offered a platform to “extremists and a fringe group of separatists.”

ABC Managing Director David Anderson said in a statement that the broadcaster “fully backs and stands by the important and impactful reporting by Avani Dias during her time as ABC correspondent in India. … The ABC believes strongly in the role of independent journalism across the globe, and freedom of the press outside Australia.”

India in recent years has steadily declined in the Reporters Without Borders annual World Press Freedom Index, reaching a low of 161st place in the 2023 edition. Indian journalists are often subject to pressures exceeding what foreign correspondents face, including online harassment, tax investigations, electronic surveillance and arrest.

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