MHA's COVID Rules Prevent Resident Foreign Journalists Who Left India From Returning

Though entry restrictions have been relaxed to allow several categories of foreign nationals to return to their jobs, resident foreign journalists have conspicuously been left out.

New Delhi: Even as India has relaxed the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and opened its gates to several categories of foreign nationals to return to their jobs, it has kept one group out of this list – resident foreign journalists.

On March 11, the government had suspended all visas granted to foreign nationals, except diplomatic, official, UN/international organisations, employment and project visas for a month. This was extended thereafter, as India continued to face a growth in the recorded number of new COVID-19 cases. Within a week of the suspension of visas, India would snap all international travel links and go into a complete lockdown.

As more Indians started to return through the Vande Bharat repatriation flights, the home ministry, which is in charge of India’s visa policy, began to also relax the visa suspension and permit additiona; categories of foreign nationals to enter India.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) circular dated June 30 had 13 categories of foreign nationals who were allowed to enter India – from businessmen on chartered flights to foreign technical specialists required to service machinery or facilities.

However, the missing category in all MHA circulars that relaxed visa rules was foreign journalists accredited by the Indian government.

A journalist working for an international news organisation in Delhi told The Wire that she had left India on a repatriation flight organised by her country’s embassy, but cannot now return to work as the local Indian embassy is not issuing her a visa.

“(We left as) we were not sure what the situation would be with regards to the spread of the virus and access to healthcare,” she stated.

As soon she and her colleagues left India, their visas to stay and work in India were effectively cancelled. Her visa, as such, should have been up for renewal in June, in normal circumstances.

“I have tried several times to reapply for a visa to get me back to Delhi but they won’t accept an application yet. My kids need to get back to school and our flat in Delhi is being paid for but is unoccupied,” she noted.

‘No response from Indian embassy’

For the past year, Sophie Landrin has been the India and South Asia correspondent for French newspaper Le Monde.

“I left Delhi on May 15 for family and medical reasons…. I expected to come back to India at the end of June, but I couldn’t because I have no visa,” she told The Wire.

The Indian government has started to put in place ‘air travel bubbles’ with western countries to allow foreign airlines to carry foreign nationals on both legs of their flights to India. However, foreign nationals can avail of these travel corridors only if the Indian home ministry removes the restrictions on their visa categories.

Landrin said that she has been contacting the Indian embassy for her visa since June 25. But, there has still not been any sign. “When I apply for my visa, each year, I must have a letter of accreditation from the embassy of India in Paris,” she explained.

Posted as a correspondent covering South Asia, staying out the area of her responsibility has been detrimental to her work. “I am working from Paris but it’s difficult to be the India correspondent from Paris.”

Similarly, The Economist’s South Asia bureau chief Max Rodenbeck has also been forced to work from London as he cannot return. “I had to leave because my father died and am now stuck outside the country since India is not recognising any J-visas at its border,” he said.

While he is also working remotely, for now, he said that is not sustainable for more than a few weeks due to the uncertainty over when India will relax its visa rules for journalists. “But for how long? And why are accredited foreign journalists, whose country of residence is India, where we pay taxes etc, specifically excluded from entry?” he asked.

‘Issue has been discussed with MEA’

Speaking to The Wire, the president of the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) of South Asia, S. Venkat Narayan, said a large number of foreign journalists are unable to return to work as they had to leave India either for personal reasons or on repatriation flights organised by their countries.

He said that the FCC has already approached the Indian government in the last few months to request a revision in the visa rules. “We had a meeting with the Ministry of External Affairs’ external publicity division. They said that they will recommend that J-visa holders should also be included in the list of foreign nationals permitted to enter India. We believe that the MEA has written to the MHA and we hope to hear some good news soon,” he said.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor also highlighted the issue on Twitter, saying he was shocked to learn that resident foreign journalists do not have re-entry privileges. He said that many Delhi-based foreign correspondents are ‘stranded’ overseas, adding that the government’s delay in granting them re-entry privileges reflects ‘poorly’ on the country’s democracy and respect for free press.

The Wire has asked the MEA for a response on the status of the accredited foreign journalists who are unable to return to India due to the visa guidelines issued by the home ministry. The story will be updated if and when the response is received.