Neighbours sans reporters

By Chhetria Patrakar

12 August 2015

Subcontinent’s two biggest states don’t have a single reporter in each other’s countries.
Wagah Border, Pakistan. Photo: Filckr / Salman Ahmad

The Wagah Border between India and Pakistan.
Photo: Flickr / Salman Ahmad

A fresh round of exchange of fire between India and Pakistan broke on 4 August 2015. Earlier in July, along with ceasefire violations, the two sides engaged in a bitter exchange of hostilities after Pakistan claimed to have shot down an alleged Indian ‘spy drone’ along the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a claim India was quick to rubbish.

The media in both countries spends considerable time and space discussing and analysing any engagement between them. Witnessing the extensive coverage, one would imagine that the Indian and Pakistani correspondents based in each other’s countries would be intensely busy. But, the reality is bizarre; despite their shared obsession for each other, it has now been more than a year since an Indian reporter was based in Pakistan, and several years since a Pakistani reporter was based in India.

The absurdity stems from the 1990s, when the number of correspondents stationed in each country was whittled down by a ridiculous war of parity between the two governments. Since then, it has become an unwritten convention to give only two journalists work visas at any given point of time. Apart from the ‘two-for-two’ rule, there are numerous visa and mobility restrictions imposed on journalists. They are generally confined within the capital and are required to obtain special permissions to travel to other parts of the country.

In recent years, the slots for Indian journalist have been filled by correspondents from the Hindu and the Press Trust of India (PTI), while Pakistani journalists were usually from Pakistan’s state-owned media. In May 2014, Meena Menon, the Hindu’s Islamabad correspondent and PTI’s Snehesh Alex Philip, who had been working in Pakistan since August 2013, were denied visa extensions and asked to leave the country. Since then no Indian correspondent has been working in Pakistan. The absence of a Pakistani correspondent in India goes back much longer. Details of this were hard to come by. (We contacted the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi, as well as several senior journalists with an interest in India-Pakistan issues without luck). The information available in the public domain suggests that the last Pakistani journalist based in India left in 2011.

Indian journalists Nirupama Subramanian and Meena Menon’s accounts of their time in Pakistan illustrate how remarkably different the attitudes of the Pakistani people and state were to them, revealing a bizarre blend of warmth and suspicion. Similarly, Pakistani freelance journalist Farooq Sulehria recounts his time in Delhi as a researcher as one of familiarity and cordiality from the city and its people. Clearly, the opposition to the stationing of journalists from the ‘enemy country’ comes not from the people as much as from the governments.

Allowing independent journalists from each other’s countries to work with minimum restrictions would enable an easy flow of information across the borders, a sine qua non for any rapprochement between the two countries. As urgent as the need for de-escalation, meetings between Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) and high level political engagement is the need  for both countries to grant visas to at least two journalists each, before doing away with this quota system altogether.

~With research and input by editorial intern Tejeshwi Nath Bhattarai.

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