How OCI journalists in India are navigating uncertain work permissions amid govt scrutiny

Government spokespersons deny targeting of critical journalists — India’s visa and work permit regime is as opaque or transparent as the US and UK.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
Silhouettes of journalist and an OCI card.

French journalist Vanessa Dougnac, whose overseas citizenship of India status is under threat, first came under the government’s scrutiny more than two years ago. In September 2022, the ministry of home affairs revoked her special permission to work in the country as a media professional.

But she is not the only OCI journalist to have run into work permission issues. 

Newslaundry learned that there are about 25 OCI journalists in India working with foreign media outlets, as of January 2024. At least one other journalist working with a foreign publication had to leave the country in 2022. 

Several other OCI journalists have either been denied work permission or have not received a response to their applications, seeking permission to work in India, since September 2022. 

The OCI status, which works like a life-time visa, is granted to foreign citizens with Indian roots or those whose spouse is an Indian citizen, among other criteria. As many as four OCI journalists spoke to Newslaundry. They did not want to be identified or singularly distinguished for the fear of being “targeted by busybodies” in the MHA. 

Notably, journalists with OCI cards did not require special permission to work in India until March 2021. 

This changed as the ministry of home affairs notified on March 4 of that year that OCI card holders would need special permission to undertake activities such as journalism, research, missionary work, tabligh activities, mountaineering, and internships in diplomatic missions. The notification was issued exercising powers under sub-section (1) of sub-section 7B of the Citizenship Act, 1955. 

The OCI journalists who spoke to Newslaundry stressed that the process to obtain work permission was “vague”. “There’s clearly a lot of miscommunication or lack of communication between the home and the external affairs ministries about what is required to grant the permission,” said one of them.

While the MHA is the custodian of OCI matters under the Citizenship Act, the ministry of external affairs is reportedly the point of contact for foreign journalists and deals with the embassies and high commissions, a government source told Newslaundry. They added that for approval or denial of work permission, the MHA and its agencies undertake security clearance, while the MEA has a “very limited role”. 

“No one knows on what basis the government of India denied or approved work permission to OCI journalists,” a journalist told Newslaundry. Another asked, “How are we supposed to know where we have gone wrong unless we are told the reason?”  

A third termed the process “arbitrary” and “precarious”, while one said, “Nobody asks us for additional documents even after the application is denied or held.”

In a similar vein, as many as 30 foreign journalists expressed “deep concern” over the MHA notice to Dougnac in a statement issued on January 26. The statement said “new and opaque administrative burdens” had hampered the journalistic activities of their colleagues with OCI status. 

A journalist said Dougnac’s case has raised an “alarm” among foreign correspondents with OCI status. “The government of India is reportedly talking about the stories she filed in the 2000s. I don’t know how far back the government of India can go to justify denial or approval,” they told Newslaundry.

Sources said a few journalists have made representation to the MEA “through different channels” to air their grievances. 

But speaking to Newslaundry, Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser with the broadcasting ministry, rejected the allegations. He said the Indian process of giving permits or granting visas is “as open or as opaque as it is in the US or UK or Europe or any other country”.

On the government’s refusal to share reasons for the denial of permission, Gupta underlined that visas and work permits are a privilege and not a right for foreign nationals across the world. “No country offers an explanation as to why visas or work permits have been denied,” he said.  

“That’s purely a matter of assessment. If you apply for an H-1B visa, the US is, in no way, obliged to grant it to you. And if any country denies the visa, it is not obliged to explain the reasons for the denial. Across the world, visas, work permits, entry permits, and, in some countries, exit permits are entirely a matter of privilege and not a right,” said Gupta.

Newslaundry reached out to the MHA and the MEA with questions on the matter. This report will be updated if a response is received. 

Profile of foreign journalists same as in ‘war zones’ 

More than two years after Dougnac was denied work permission by the Indian government, an uncertainty now looms over her stay in India. The journalist has been living in the country for over two decades. 

After receiving the MHA notice, which asked why her OCI status should not be withdrawn over allegations of visa rule violations and “malicious” reportage, the journalist denied the allegations. Calling India her “home,” she said it is a country she “deeply loves”. 

The predicament facing Dougnac was also discussed between the Indian and the French government officials during and prior to French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India as a chief guest for the 75th Republic Day celebrations. Foreign secretary Vijay Mohan Kwatra confirmed the development in a press briefing on the Republic Day. However, he denied that the notice was related to her journalistic work.

“Pressure” on the news industry, coupled with “growing difficulties” in ensuring a “secure life” in India has meant that a younger pool of foreign journalists are employed in the country, journalists told Newslaundry.  

Profile of an Indian foreign correspondent is “more like the foreign correspondent in a war zone”, said one of the journalists. “Younger professionals, no kids, easier to move in and out of the country.”  

However, this was not the case in the “pre-Narendra Modi era”. “Earlier, middle-aged foreign correspondents with families occupied top positions in India. Now, fewer of them remain in ‘war zone’ India,” said one of the journalists.

“There are fewer married couples and fewer with children now. That's in part because of the pressure on the news industry around the world. But I would think that the growing difficulty of making a secure life here is also a part of that.”

Another OCI journalist said restricted geographies had hampered their career. And it had forced a few to work from other South Asian countries. 

Dougnac too has reported from countries neighbouring India since her permission to work in India was cancelled in September 2022. “For more than two years, she has complied with the rules and did not report from India. We hoped that she would get relief by getting a work permit. But it has become worse for her,” said a journalist.

In a notice sent by the MHA in September 2022, Douganc was told that she had been denied permission to work as a journalist by “the competent authority”.   

But has the government’s actions muted its criticism? 

“We don’t let it cramp our style,” said a journalist with a foreign news outlet. Another said the government action had made them wary that “any criticism” could trigger a “denial of permission to work the next day”.   

The journalist said, “We don't know what the government is sensitive about… But definitely, it makes us worried that any criticism can trigger a denial to work the next day. It's mentally exhausting to know that we could be stopped from working one sudden day, with no intimation nor explanation.”

What triggered the OCI backlash?

One of the reasons for the MHA’s 2021 notification, mandating special work permission for OCI journalists, was due to “violations of OCI guidelines” by “Indian-looking” overseas citizens, the government source told Newslaundry.

“We had people turning up in restricted areas without any permit. You had foreigners doing research in sensitive areas. Once you look Indian, you are not a foreigner,” said the source. They emphasised that “similar guidelines” are in place for Indian journalists working abroad, be it “the United States, Europe or the Middle East”. 

“There are rules and regulations that govern visas and employment in these countries. So you need to stick to them. I have had foreign journalists ask me why they need permits. I tell them, ‘Look, there are parts of India where even Indians need permits to go’. And these curbs have existed for the past 70 years. We have come across a lot of cases where journalists have violated visa rules by visiting restricted areas without permits,” said the source.

Media adviser Gupta said the 2021 MHA notification came after a few foreign journalists complained that while they had to “wait for permits” to report from Kashmir or the Northeast where access to journalists is restricted, their OCI counterparts could enter and exit these areas without any permission. “There was no sinister edge to it,” he said.

By May 2022, the MHA had published the rules for OCI cardholders and a website to process work permission applications was also in place. The OCI journalists then began receiving emails from the MEA regarding the mandated “special permission”. 

One of the emails, seen by Newslaundry, read: “As you are aware, OCI card holders have to apply for special permission to engage in any journalistic activities in India. A brief guidelines/instructions and application procedure are attached. You are requested to kindly apply for the special permission at the earliest.”

As per the process, journalists must upload their documents on the OCI website and the wheels of security clearance and background checks chug on.

The OCI journalists can still work from India during the pendency of their application. “There is no rule that stops OCIs from working in India during that period,” said a government source.   

‘No systematic targeting’

As foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra was asked whether the uncertainties about Dougnac’s OCI status was discussed during French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit, at the press briefing on January 26, he had responded in affirmative. He had also added that the matter was discussed during and even before the meeting.    

Kwatra had also rejected the allegations that the MHA notice was linked to her reportage. “The frame of reference to look at is the compliance with the rules and regulations of the country. I don't think this has got anything else to do with the other aspects of journalism. People are free to do what they are accredited to do in a given space,” the foreign secretary had told the media.

Government sources also argued that denial of work permission was unrelated to a journalist’s work. “There is a very small number of journalists who have been denied work permission. It was either because of visa violations or their entry into a restricted zone without permit.”

An OCI journalist who had received the work permission also said that there is no “systematic targeting”. “The relationship between the foreign media and the government has always been complicated. But I don’t think the government of India is systematically targeting OCI journalists because they published critical stories. If this was the case, most journalists would not be allowed to work here.”

They further argued that MHA “did not need rules” to target an OCI journalist. “For instance, marriage with an Indian citizen is not enough. The MHA would like to know if the couple is living together. If they are not, the MHA does not like it. This may not be against the rule, but if you twist it, MHA will kick you out.” 

Newslaundry learned that an OCI journalist’s spouse had received a few calls from the MHA, enquiring if they were “still living together”.  

Journalists flag ‘disturbing signal’ 

The group of 30 foreign correspondents working in India, who had expressed “deep concern” over the MHA notice to Doungac last week, hoped that the matter would be “resolved quickly”.   

These foreign journalists work for The Washington Post, The New York Times, Le Monde, France Televisions, France 24, The Independent, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. 

Their statement said, “While foreign correspondents have grappled with increased visa restrictions in recent years, our colleagues with OCI status have faced particular difficulty from new and often opaque administrative burdens, hampering their ability to work as journalists.” 

It further said that the matter does not only affect Dougnac’s “livelihood but also her family life”. “We request the Indian authorities to facilitate the vital work of a free press in line with India’s democratic traditions.” 

Meanwhile, Press Club of India feared that the notice was an attempt to “curb journalistic freedom”. “We are deeply apprehensive that the notice to Ms Dougnac is in the nature of a misuse of law to curb journalistic freedom, of which there are several instances in the recent past. We reiterate that the freedom of the press is vital to the health of India’s democracy and should be preserved at any cost,” read the journalists body’s statement. 

Describing the notice as a “disturbing signal” for the future of journalism in India, Reporters Without Borders urged the Indian authorities to not expel Dougnac and allow all foreign journalists to report without fear.

Foreign Correspondents’ Club sounded sanguine that Dougnac would present the “facts before the concerned authorities to their satisfaction, emerge victorious and continue to live in India, which she loves”. Calling itself a “staunch supporter of the freedom of the press”, it said that foreign journalists have to abide by the Indian laws.

In June last year, at least 10 foreign journalists had quit FCC after its president S Venkat Narayan visited junta-led newspaper officials in Myanmar. The journalists said FCC had failed to represent their interests in light of Narayan’s visit.

This report was published with AI assistance.

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