Reporters censor themselves in India to avoid losing residence permits, RSF investigation finds

As Hindu nationalist propaganda takes an ever greater hold on India, more and more foreign reporters are steering clear of sensitive subjects for fear of losing their residence permits. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the bureaucratic uncertainties and pressures to which journalists are subjected to the point that some censor themselves or even stop practicing journalism in India.

Do you keep writing, do you stop, do you leave? These are the questions that many foreign journalists in India are asking themselves as the governmental environment gets increasingly hostile. Vanessa Dougnac, a French journalist who had been living in India for 25 years, was forced to return to France earlier this month after being threatened in January with being stripped of her residence permit and being refused press accreditation 18 months ago.

In India, more and more journalists fear suffering the same fate, while abroad, journalists of Indian origin stop covering India in order to be able to keep visiting as tourists. In a sign of the climate of fear that has taken hold within the media community, almost all of the people interviewed by RSF for this investigation insisted on not being identified by name.

The Overseas Citizen of India card (OCI) is a lifetime residence permit issued to foreigners of Indian origin or to the spouses of Indian citizens. Its original aim was to encourage members of the Indian diaspora to become more involved in India, but it has turned into a tool for controlling their movements and activities in India.

Since 2019, someone who is stripped of their OCI status “will also be blacklisted preventing his/her future entry into India,” says a Ministry of Home Affairs document that now acts as a permanent threat hanging over “OCI journalists” in India.

“You’re given the idea that you have that option to build up your life here and everything stops suddenly,” said one OCI journalist resident in India.

“The interviews conducted by RSF show that journalists are in effect being blackmailed in connection with the granting or withdrawal of the OCI status that allows them to move about freely in India. In the end, fear of losing this status induces some to censor themselves or give up practicing their profession. By exerting pressure on their citizen rights, the Indian authorities are surreptitiously targeting their work as journalists.

Arnaud Froger
head of RSF’s investigation desk

Letting doubt hang in the air 

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 Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Time Magazine just before that year’s general elections.

“They won’t do something as dramatic as kicking out all the correspondents one by one,” Taseer said. “It doesn’t suit their interests. The deterioration is steady and journalists under OCI, especially those living with their families in India, can’t afford to face this kind of situation.”

The arbitrary manner in which OCI cards are withdrawn feeds “a feeling of anxiety that impacts your readiness to take risks and the way you tackle stories,” said a journalist resident in India. “The basis of all this is that there are no more rules, no more regulation, a complete absence of standards.”

The OCI card is not the only tool used by the Indian authorities. Since 2021, journalists holding this card must also obtain a work visa, for which the conditions are opaque. Some continue to work while awaiting this precious document in a state ignorance and uncertainty carefully maintained by officialdom. Others, no longer knowing how to distinguish dangerous subjects from tolerated one, opt to stop reporting. In the absence of clear explanations from the government, some resign themselves to leaving because they no longer feel welcome.

“Tomorrow they could easily decide that I have been breaking all the rules while working here,” said a journalist who has been based in India for several years. “I realise that I no longer have a future in India.”

Unable to return

The impact of the government's oppressive policies is also felt abroad. Some OCI journalists living in other countries have decided not to go to India to cover the coming elections. Three interviewed by RSF cited the length of the accreditation process, the probability of refusal, the obligation to provide a work contract and the obligation to provide the Indian embassy with a detailed description of the reporting they plan to do in India. And they also cited their fear of being banned from ever returning to their country of origin.

“The stakes are so high, and there is this thought of never being able to return to your family and to your country,” said an OCI journalist residing in Europe.

It was the same fear that persuaded an Indian-born journalist who has acquired another nationality not to apply for an OCI card. She told RSF that she preferred to apply for a foreign journalist’s visa. “If it ever gets revoked, I could always go back as a tourist,” she said. Despite these precautions, she no longer writes anything “controversial” or critical of the government under her own name, in the hope of being able to return to work in India.

“In effect, voices from outside are being silenced,” she said. “It's self-censorship. I realise that.”

“Some stopped going to India while others who want to keep their OCI have censored themselves,” said Raqib Hameed Naik, a US-based freelance journalist who founded Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab, which monitor religious violence and hate speech in India. Although an Indian citizen, he is not going back for fear of being arrested, and for the time being prefers to remain in self-exile in the United States. He nonetheless hopes to be reunited with his family in India when there is a change of government.

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