Foreign correspondents increasingly refused permits, visas, access in India
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on India’s administration to stop arbitrarily exploiting its procedures for issuing journalist visas and permits to keep foreign correspondents in a state of limbo or prevent them from working altogether. Foreign correspondents must be allowed to do their job without hindrance, RSF says.
The Indian authorities have been escalating their use of retaliatory measures against foreign correspondents, including denying them access to regions, shortening visas or refusing permits.
These arbitrary practices have been highlighted by the case of Vanessa Dougnac, a French journalist who was threatened with expulsion in January for writing supposedly “malicious and critical” articles, and who has been deprived of the right to work in India for the past 17 months.
Her right to work as the holder of an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card – a residence permit issue to foreigners of Indian origin or those who are the spouses of Indian citizens – was suddenly refused in September 2022 without any grounds being given, although she had been covering India for 20 years for French-language media such as La Croix, Le Soir and Le Point.
Her case is far from isolated. Four OCI card-holding journalists have so far been refused permission to work. As a result, two of them decided to leave India altogether.
“Vanessa Dougnac’s case has highlighted how the process of issuing visas or work permits is exploited to put pressure on foreign journalists, or prevent them from working altogether. As respect for press freedom continues to plummet in India and only a few truly independent media remain, this is one more tool in the repressive arsenal used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to try to control the news media and protect its image. We condemn this unacceptable exploitation of administrative procedures to obstruct press freedom, and we call on the Indian government to allow foreign correspondents to work freely, without being subjected to the constant threat of being denied the right to work simply because they did their job to report the facts.
Increasingly elusive work permit
Aatish Taseer, a journalist who was born in Britain but grew up in India, was stripped of his OCI status in 2019 after writing a cover story about Narendra Modi for Time Magazine. As a result, he is no longer able to reside in the country where his family lives.
The constraints on foreign journalists who are OCI card holders increased dramatically in 2022, when the authorities started making them apply for a special permit to work as journalists, one that has to be renewed ever year at the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO). This permit can be refused in a completely arbitrary manner, without any justification.
Angad Singh, a US journalist of Indian origin who makes documentaries for Vice News, was deported back to the United States on arriving in Delhi in August 2022 despite having an OCI card. A 2020 documentary by Singh about India was deemed “negative” by the Indian authorities, who said he had “indulged in blatant anti-national propaganda to defame the country.”
Foreign reporters lacking OCI status must apply for a journalist’s visa. In theory, these visas are issued for a year but in practice they are often issued in an arbitrary manner for much shorter periods – for two, three or six months – keeping journalists in a precarious state of constantly having to renew and under threat of being refused.
Access to regions restricted
Foreign journalists also no longer have access to around ten States and Union territories (either in their entirety or in part), in particular Jammu and Kashmir, whose entire territory has been inaccessible since 2019. Access to these areas is subject to special permits, and requests for authorisation are hardly ever granted. The application procedures constitute just one more layer of restrictions and red tape that nowadays make it very hard for foreign journalists to cover India.
India is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.