Friday , 22 March 2019

Democracies guarantee press freedoms

Karan Thapar

Bad or outdated rules and laws should be allowed to fall into disuse or, better still, repealed. That would be the sensible thing to do. Alas, we have an example of a bad rule, which has been ignored for years, but is now to be strictly enforced. It’s a terrible mistake and one that is likely to prove both expensive and self-defeating.

I refer to the 1958 guidelines regarding the travel of foreigners. This set of rules require journalists to seek “prior permission” before travelling to “parts” of Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir and the whole of Sikkim and Nagaland. For years, if not decades, this requirement was ignored and it was believed the guidelines had lapsed. The result was foreign correspondents based in Delhi could travel easily and quickly to all parts of India. This not only improved their coverage of the country but also their understanding as well as their sense of being welcomed and valued. Now, at one stroke, that could be reversed.

Let’s take Srinagar as an example. Until now foreign correspondents could visit this state capital virtually whenever they wanted. This underlined India’s insistence that Kashmir is a fully integrated part of the country. It gave meaning to the phrase ‘atoot ang’. Now each time a correspondent wishes to visit, he or she will have to seek permission from the government. Weeks could pass – and often will – before it’s granted. Indeed, occasionally or even often, it may not be.

So what message does this requirement send about India? I wonder if anyone has seriously thought about it. If I can jump the gun I’d add I doubt it.

To begin with, it casts a shadow over India’s vaunted claim to be the largest democracy in the world. Democracies, after all, guarantee press freedoms. India is now putting restrictions on the foreign media. If this raises disturbing doubts in their minds we have only ourselves – or our government – to blame.

However, the outcome could be worse. The revival of long-standing restrictions also suggests there are sizeable parts of India where disaffection exists which the government does not want the outside world to see. These are areas that will now be deemed to be ‘denied’ to the foreign media. If, therefore, it concludes we have something to hide can you blame it?

There’s also one other reason why revival of old guidelines is silly. It will not just upset but put the backs up of foreign correspondents who will, understandably, feel this is directly targeted at them. Which, of course, it is. And this doesn’t make sense.

When you accept foreign correspondents it’s because you want them to convey an accurate appreciation of the country but also, more importantly, a favourable one. After all, they are the eyes and ears of the outside world. Their reportage will influence not just foreign governments but, possibly more tellingly, tourists. Yet if you create deliberate inconveniences you can only be certain of riling them. In turn, that could jaundice their attitude to the country. And if that happens its repercussions could be far greater than just upsetting the odd journalist or the occasional media house.

So let me end by repeating the question I began with: is this wise or will it prove expensive and self-defeating? It won’t be long before we find out but I have little confidence my fears will turn out to be unfounded.

(HT Media)


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