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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Opinion: The McMahon Rekha

November 15, 2009

Foreign correspondents were shamefully kept out of Tawang
Steven L. Herman
Outlook (India)
November 24, 2009 Edition

The Dalai Lama’s visit to a centuries-old
monastery at Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh,
clearly angered China (which claims most of the
state), besides causing indigestion for New Delhi
bureaucrats. The result: the Indian government,
in an apparently unprecedented peacetime move,
prohibited foreign correspondents from covering a
significant international event.

Foreigners do not have free movement in much of
India. In nine states (plus the Andaman, Nicobar
and Lakshadweep island groups),
Protected/Restricted Area Permits are required.
The disputed border stretch at Tawang is usually
not forbidden territory for foreign backpackers
and pilgrims. Arunachal state officials expressed
no anxiety about granting me-- or other
correspondents -- permission for a November
visit. Indeed, some foreign journalists who
doubled up as part of a ‘tour group’ were initially given permits.

For solo correspondents, the paperwork went to
the Centre -- only to be caught between the home
and external affairs ministries. Bureaucrats in
each of those ministries blamed the other
ministry for sitting on the applications. Indian
newspapers quoted central officials as saying the
applications were still being considered, even as
the Dalai Lama arrived in Arunachal. This was
disingenuous. By that time, those few foreign
correspondents who had been granted permits
received urgent phone calls from home affairs
officials, sternly informing them permission had
been "revoked" and warning them that to ignore
the order would put future visa renewals in
jeopardy. Among those who received revocation
orders were the Associated Press and the Washington Post.

Many journalists from foreign news bureaus had
applied weeks, even months, in advance, certainly
enough time to make decisions. As the president
of the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia,
Heather Timmons of the New York Times pointed out
that, during last November’s Mumbai siege, the
external affairs ministry processed 200 visas for
visiting correspondents within 48 hours!

The most logical explanation for New Delhi’s
motivation is, it didn’t want to exacerbate
bilateral tensions by having the Dalai Lama’s
visit widely publicised. If so, the apparent
kowtowing to China had the opposite effect,
because word of the clampdown hit the
international news wires and further piqued
interest in the Tawang visit among news editors.
In retrospect, the ban was a clumsy move.

Domestic journalists could not be restricted,
requiring as they do only the Inner Line Permit,
which the state government routinely grants. My
own impression is that domestic reporters are
certainly not lacking in aggressiveness compared
to their non-Indian brethren. Did officials
really believe that, in the absence of foreign
journalists, the questions tossed at the Dalai
Lama would be fluffier? Indian officials should
have understood that using nationality as the
criterion for which reporters would be allowed to
cover the visit wouldn’t hinder coverage. The
major international news agencies and the most
influential video disseminators have Indian staff
and, predictably, utilised them to beam the Dalai
Lama’s provocative comments on China worldwide.

Subsequently, Indian reporters in Tawang were
soon pressured to stop questioning the Dalai
Lama. I have covered the Tibetan spiritual leader
in person numerous times and he always has the
patience and good grace to reply on the spot to
reporters. He certainly doesn’t mind the media
attention, aware that it keeps the plight of the
Tibetans in the headlines. Again, the pressure on
journalists seemed to result not in response to
inconveniencing the Dalai Lama but rather the Chinese.

Foreign correspondents here have noticed other
more subtle indications of the Indian government
increasing scrutiny of news correspondents. Some
who have delved into sensitive human rights
issues (such as casteism) have had fresh visas
denied. Some correspondents have been told that
renewals for Press Information Bureau
identification cards would be smoother if they
would dispatch more flattering stories. There are
rumblings of a crackdown against shuttling
freelancers who report on poverty, communal and
sectarian violence and the widespread Maoist
insurgency. I’m told India feels such coverage
harms its quests to acquire a permanent seat at
the UN Security Council or win a future bid to host the Olympics.

But should that be achieved by taking censorship
cues from China rather than upholding -- Indira
Gandhi’s Emergency aside -- decades of being one
of the brightest lights of press freedom
globally? This week the diya dimmed, at least for
foreign correspondents in India.

(The writer is South Asia bureau chief, Voice of America.)
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