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THE MEDIA
India-Pakistan conflict affecting war coverage

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 11/7/2001

Concerns that the government of Pakistan is refusing to give visas to some reporters of Indian ethnicity trying to cover the war in Afghanistan has prompted several journalistic organizations to lodge protests over an issue that appears to be an outgrowth of the simmering tension between India and Pakistan.

On Oct. 29, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf stating that it is ''extremely concerned by your government's apparent refusal to process visa applications from journalists of Indian descent. ... Because the current crisis is one of truly global proportions, it is crucial that journalists from around the world are granted unfettered access to countries currently on the `front lines' such as Pakistan.''

''We really did wait until there was a pretty obvious pattern,'' said Kavita Menon, the committee's Asia program coordinator. ''This is one of the most systematic, far-reaching efforts to restrict access I've seen so far.''

Sreenath Sreenivasan, co-founder of the New York-based South Asian Journalists Association, which represents about 800 journalists of South Asian origin in the United States and Canada, worries that Pakistani restrictions on journalists of Indian heritage will also be harmful to their career development.

''These are the kind of reporters we need to send to that part of the world. ... You have a language, you have a knowledge, you have an understanding of that part of the world,'' said Sreenivasan, who is also a professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. ''In this country, foreign reporting is an honor. It's a privilege. ... It's hard enough to get a foreign posting when you're a minority. It's unfair for Pakistan or any other country [to discriminate] based on citizenship.''

Among those journalists who have been unable to get Pakistani visas are a number of British Broadcasting Corp. staffers based in New Delhi; CNN New Delhi bureau chief Satinder Bindra, who is a Canadian citizen; Moni Basu, an Indian citizen who is a US permanent resident and works at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Raja Mishra, a Boston Globe Staffer and Nebraska native. Basu said that after some bureaucratic delay, Pakistani officials told her ''that if I had other colleagues who could go, the paper should send them.'' Mishra said he was told by the Pakistani embassy that the ''government established a new policy essentially banning Indian reporters, regardless of their nationality.'' Mishra called that ''racial profiling of the most blatant kind.''

Asad Hayauddin, press attache at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, acknowledged that ''India and Pakistan are not on the best of terms'' but said journalists ''have not been denied or cannot get visas. There is just a procedure to be followed.'' According to Hayauddin, the embassy has the authority to issue 30-day visas to journalists of non-Indian heritage as long as the paperwork is forwarded to the Ministry of Information. Journalists who hold either Indian citizenship or are of Indian descent must undergo a lengthier process that includes a review of the application by the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Information. He said Pakistani officials are ''still working'' on Basu's application, and that Mishra ''has a chance to get in.''

Mishra's Globe colleague, Indira Lakshmanan, a US citizen of Indian heritage, was allowed into Pakistan when she arrived there from Hong Kong in mid-September and subsequently had her visa extended and marked for reentry.

Hayauddin said his country's visa policy is ''guided by bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan. Because of security concerns, a certain restrictive policy has been adopted.''

Navtej Sarna, a spokesman for the Indian embassy in Washington, said, ''I'm not aware of any such [bilateral] agreement.'' He also indicated that while a Pakistani journalist would have to undergo a different process to get a visa to India, his country does not differentiate between any other journalist and journalists of Pakastani heritage who are not Pakistani citizens. ''We go by nationality,'' said Sarna, ''If a person is an American citizen, we say his ethnicity does not make a difference.''

With the war raging in Afghanistan, there are a lot more Indian journalists trying to get to Pakistan now than there are Pakistani journalists trying to get to India. And Sreenivasan, of the South Asian Journalists Association, said all the complaints he is getting are about restrictions in Pakistan. Basu said that while she hasn't gotten a visa, several other journalists from her newsroom were allowed to go to Pakistan. While Mishra remains frustrated in his efforts to reach Pakistan, three other non-Indian Globe reporters who applied when he did or afterward were allowed to go there.

Overseas, there have also been problems for Indian journalists. A senior BBC journalist who asked not to be named said in an e-mail that he and a colleague were told by Pakistan's Ministry of Information that reporters with any kind of ''Indian connection'' would need Interior Ministry clearance and ''they seemed to be passing us from pillar to post.'' A CNN spokeswoman confirmed that Bindra, the network's New Delhi bureau chief and a Canadian citizen now stationed in northern Afghanistan, was turned down for a Pakistani visa and ''we're not sure of the circumstances.''

Subhranshu Choudhary, a producer in the BBC's South Asia Bureau in New Delhi, said there are more than 10 journalists in that bureau (including one citizen of the United Kingdom) who applied nearly two months ago and have still not been granted a Pakistani visa while non-Indians got visas within ''hours.''

''I applied just two or three days after September 11. I haven't heard anything back,'' he said in an interview. ''If I give them a call, they will say it's still in process.''

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 11/7/2001.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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