In Tightening of Government Rules, Foreign Journalists Need Prior Permission to Visit Kashmir

MEA tells foreign correspondents based in India to apply eight weeks in advance, actual clearance will come only from home ministry.

New Delhi: In a move that is reminiscent of a brief period during the early days of the Kashmir insurgency in 1990 when the Indian government made it impossible for foreign journalists to report from the valley, the Ministry of External Affairs has written to all foreign correspondents stationed in India that they will have to apply in writing for permission to travel anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir.

Off the record, MEA sources insist the diktat is merely reiteration of long-standing policy governing the entry of foreign reporters to “restricted and protected areas”, and that there is no bar on reporting trips to the state. MEA sources say the Ministry of Home Affairs has always treated the entire territory of Jammu and Kashmir as a restricted area, even if in practice, this was enforced only for the strip along the Line of Control – visits to which required prior clearance for a visit.

While sources deny coming up with a “new” rule, they do acknowledge that the government is now serious about enforcement.

Since the tightening of official policy, The Wire is aware of at least one instance of the government failing expeditiously to grant a reporter permission to visit the state, thus effectively voiding the intended story.

‘Official clearance’ needed

In letters sent out to foreign news organisations based in Delhi on May 22, 2018, the MEA’s external publicity division said it was addressing the “important issue” of foreign journalists travelling to circumscribed areas “without official clearance”.

“It has come to the notice of the Ministry of External Affairs that some foreign journalists based in India, while discharging their journalistic activities or for tourism purposes, have travelled to places which come under restricted/protected areas that require prior permission/special permit,” said the MEA letter.

“Travel to these protected/restricted areas without prior approval/special permission may cause unnecessary access related issues resulting in inconvenience for the journalist,” it added.

The letter also gave the URL of the Bureau of Immigration’s webpage which listed out the protected and restricted areas. The protected areas includes “parts” of Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh were in protected areas, while the whole state of Sikkim and Nagaland falls within this category.

The restricted areas are the entire Andaman and Nicobar islands and parts of Sikkim.

The letter further said that MEA as “happy to help” with facilitating access, adding that advance information “in requisite format” before the planned visit would help in arranging  special permit from “relevant agencies”. The format to apply for special permit was also attached with the letter.

“You are requested to bring above information to the notice of foreign journalists working in your bureau and request them to abide by these,” it said.

Though the URL refers to unspecified “parts of Jammu and Kashmir”, foreign correspondents who have made enquiries with the MEA have been told the whole of the state is now off-limit for visits without permission.

This was confirmed to The Wire by sources who shared a copy of a December 13, 2016 MEA email, which  simply says “It may kindly be noted that prior approval of Government of India is required to visit the following states/areas in India” and then includes “Jammu and Kashmir” in the list without limiting it to any “parts” or “restricted areas”.

MEA note of December 13, 2016

“Should you wish to visit any of the above mentioned places, you should apply for Special Permit in the prescribed format and submit it to XPD Division for its processing”.

Delhi-based foreign correspondents said that so far they had always submitted applications while travelling to north-east India, where the inner-line permit system and other restrictions govern entry of all foreigners and not just foreign reporters.. However, there has been no such practice in place for Kashmir for foreign tourists or journalists.

The MEA first informed foreign correspondents about the new restrictions in December 2016. That was the year massive disturbances shook the valley in the aftermath of the encounter killing of militant commander Burhan Wani.  “I think that they were not enforcing the rules earlier. Now, it seems that they are serious about it,” said a journalist working for a foreign newspaper.

In the past, no requirement of special permission

Another foreign correspondent said that until now, nearly all foreign reporters based in India had travelled to Kashmir as part of their reporting assignments, largely “with no prohibitions or restrictions”.

The foreign journalist, who has made multiple reporting journeys to Kashmir without any special permits, said no one had been stopped till now. “During those trips, we have met with the top political leaders in the state and even military officials. There was no questions about permits”.

A foreign correspondent who has travelled to Kashmir before the latest MEA letter but who did not wish to be identified also said that he had “no problem in visiting Kashmir”. He added that he was “told that the places that I visited, such as Kashmir, did not require special permission”.

They noted that all foreigners and not just journalists arriving at Srinagar airport are required to fill up a form on arrival on their plans, places of stay etc etc. “So the government definitely knew that foreign journalists were up there. Of course, published articles also have datelines, so no one is hiding their travels,” said a Delhi-based foreign journalist, who also did not wanted to identified.

“It has been a long time since I went to Kashmir in the early ’90s but even in those most violent days I was never asked to apply  for permission,” says Barbara Crossette who was the New York Times correspondent in India in the 1980s and early 1990s. She added that there were, however, “subtle ways  to monitor and control… When an editorial writer for the NYT editorial page asked me to take him to the Valley, our plane from Delhi made an unscheduled stop in Amritsar and terminated there with no credible excuse. That’s only one example – before the BJP got into the act.”

Another former New York Times correspondent, Somini Sengupta, who was posted in Delhi from January 2005 to September 2009 remembers that she was required to fill out a form of some sort “upon arrival in Srinagar”. Another alumnus of Delhi’s community of foreign journalists said that “getting to J&K was never a problem – unless the flight you wanted was full… From memory we had to fill in a form at the airport in Srinagar but that was more about where one was staying. Trips to Line of Control that were not with the Army needed sign-off from military,” he  said.

Similarly, Jason Burke, the Guardian’s Africa correspondent does not recollect ever having applied for a permit for a reporting trip to Kashmir, during his long stint in Delhi. “I don’t recall ever having to get permission in practice. An NOC may have possibly been a theoretical requirement, that said. None was ever demanded though,” said Burke, who was the British newspaper’s South Asia correspondent for over six years from 2010 to 2016.

Currently posted as the Washington Post’s Tokyo bureau chief, Simon Denyer worked in Delhi for seven years and also wrote a book on India. “Permission was not required to visit J&K while I was in India (2002-09) apart perhaps from areas right by the LoC, as far as I recall”.

Denyer, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) of South Asia, also contrasted the difference during his time in Delhi between the Pakistani and Indian sides of Kashmir on their attitude towards foreign journalists. “The Pakistani-controlled side was impossible to visit without permission and a minder but I always appreciated the greater freedom to report on the Indian side”.

While reporting on Kashmir meant just booking a flight, it was always more difficult to go to north-eastern India – for which foreign journalists had always routinely applied for permission. Several times, the permits took weeks – or they were turned down.

Sengupta, who had travelled to Kashmir several times without requiring prior government permission, personally faced more obstacles in travelling from north-eastern states. “However, in Manipur, some sort of extra clearance was required and at the time, the Home Minister – Shivraj Patil I think it was – was not readily willing to grant one,” Sengupta, the NYT’s international climate reporter, told The Wire.

Till now, following the May 22 letter, there has been one application submitted for consideration to travel to Kashmir. But, it has still not been cleared despite the application being submitted last month.

The guidelines listed in the application form said that it was “advisable” to submit the request eight weeks before the proposed date of travel. This virtually rules out visits linked to sudden developments. While the application is supposed to be submitted to the MEA, sources said the approval would be granted by Ministry of Home Affairs.

When asked about the MEA directive, FCC President S Venkat Narayan stated that he was aware of the issue and would discuss this with Indian authorities. “We will be taking it up with the MEA and MHA,” he said.

While there was no public comment, official sources told The Wire: “Advice on restricted/protected areas that may be visited by foreign journalists by prior approval of Government of India if issued from time to time is based on inputs received by MHA”.

The last ‘reminder’ was sent in December 2016, which was a sparsely written email message that just listed the places which require prior approval. After a brouhaha over the email, MEA had clarified in another email that these were “gentle reminder” of rules that were “in place for very many years and as such, are not new guidelines”.

Going by the experience quoted above of correspondents prior to 2016, however, it is evident that this “prior permission” rule has not been “in place for very many years” but is actually new.

A foreign correspondent for an American newspaper, who was in Delhi when the previous message was issued, noted that her organisation did not change their procedures. “It was unclear whether it was a reinstatement of an old policy or introduction of a new one. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, etc”.

On access, a chequered history

While the latest rules are new, the presence of foreign correspondents in Kashmir has been a long-standing matter of concern for the MEA.

In Intertwined Lives, his book on Indira Gandhi’s right-hand man, former UPA minister Jairam Ramesh writes about the early days when P.N. Haksar was charged with creating MEA’s external publicity wing – “Dealing with the visits of foreign correspondents to Kashmir has become a big headache for Nehru’s government”.

In 1957, Haksar wrote to Prime Minister Nehru, who was also the external affairs minister, that foreign correspondents were complaining “about delays and uncertainties regarding permits for them to visit Kashmir”.

Haksar specifically recommended the case of New York Times’ A.M. Rosenthal, who would later be the editor of the newspaper. Then a senior diplomat, Haksar cautioned Nehru that “it would not be a pretty situation to contemplate if Rosenthal were to write a dispatch in the New York Times about the refusal of the Government of India or of the Jammu and Kashmir government to let him go to Kashmir”.

Nehru agreed that Rosenthal should be allowed to travel to the state, if the home minister agreed. He was also in favour of allowing foreign correspondents to visit Kashmir, despite some of them behaving “badly”.

“… We realise the difficulties of the Jammu and Kashmir government in this matter and some foreign correspondents have undoubtedly behaved badly and even maliciously. Yet to refuse foreign correspondents generally is bad. I would unhesitatingly refuse permit in policy to the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express correspondents – possible also Daily Mail. I am prepared to say publicly… But such exceptions apart, I would not come in the way of foreign correspondents going to Kashmir even though their going there during election times is a nuisance,” Nehru wrote on March 25, 1957.

In April 1990, months after the insurgency in Kashmir broke out and was widely covered by the foreign press, the Central government expelled all foreign reporters from the state. One month later, however, the ban was lifted.

Since then, foreign correspondents have had unhindered access to the Valley and other parts of Jammu and Kashmir. A former Indian diplomat, who asked not to be identified, told The Wire that India’s open door policy had helped make the case internationally that the country had nothing to hide.

‘The same road as Pakistan’

“I travelled there often between 1993-97, and apart from the LOC and glacier area etc there was no restriction,” David Loyn, the BBC’s correspondent in India in the 1990s, told The Wire. “For the government it was part of the narrative that the Valley was a normal part of India  – no special status, so putting it out of bounds would have conceded ground to the separatists and pro-Pakistan lobby that it was somehow different – and we travelled widely through the countryside… I don’t understand the line in the new guidelines, ‘while discharging their journalistic activities or for tourism purposes’. If they are here on a journalist visa, then that’s good everywhere surely. It would be sad if India, seen as a beacon of press freedom in the region, [starts] slipping down the same road as Pakistan, which is now very very restrictive for foreign journalists, to the detriment of understanding.”

Note: This story has been updated to include Barbara Crossette and David Loyn’s comments, and the view of MEA sources that the MHA has always treated the whole of Jammu and Kashmir as a region which foreign journalists need permission to visit.