Amid visa troubles, ABC journalist leaves India despite diplomatic intervention

In a call with MEA, Avani Dias was allegedly told that her reportage on Nijjar had crossed a line.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
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A takedown and denial of permission

At the heart of the journalist’s exit is a 29-minute video story, titled Sikhs, Spies and Murder, on the Sikh separatist movement in Punjab, and the early life of Hardeep Singh Nijjar – a pro-Khalistan activist who was declared a terrorist by India in 2020 – in the Bhar Singh Pura village before he fled to Canada. 

Nijjar was killed in Canada last year. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged India’s role in his murder, and this was denied by India. 

Published on March 21, the video was blocked by YouTube five days later on the request of the Indian government. “This content is currently unavailable in this country because of an order from the government related to national security or public order. For more details about government removal requests,” read the message on the video. ABC also received from X a legal removal demand for the story.

Newslaundry has learnt that on March 27, MEA had called Dias, objecting to the story on Nijjar. In that call, she was purportedly told that she had crossed the line by meeting a separatist group, Dal Khalsa, and visiting Nijjar’s village. The Indian government also allegedly objected to her podcast series – titled Looking for Modi with Avani Dias – that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  

While working on her story on the Sikh separatist movement, Dias was stopped by a security official at the integrated check post at the Wagah-Attari border due to “lack of permission from the BSF” (Border Security Force). The video shows Dias in conversation with a security officer who says: “I have been directed to tell you that your permission has been cancelled.”

She wanted to shoot the beating retreat ceremony. But the MEA official quoted above told Newslaundry that Dias had visited the Wagah border without the BSF’s permission.

“MEA issued an NOC (no-objection certificate) to her. The final permission from BSF never came. Any video shot in the sensitive areas has to be reviewed by security forces. She refused this,” said the official, adding that a review of the film was mandatory as a journalist may shoot sensitive footage of security apparatus. “Even at the Wagah border, they were filming when they had no permit,” said the official.  

ABC did not reply to Newslaundry’s questions about whether Dias had filming permission from BSF. It instead said: “The ABC fully backs and stands by the important and impactful reporting by Avani Dias during her time as ABC correspondent in India. Avani joins the Four Corners team as a reporter in coming weeks. The ABC believes strongly in the role of independent journalism across the globe and freedom of the press outside Australia.”

The MEA calls the 29-minute video story a “documentary” for which a foreign media house has to abide by a separate set of rules and regulations. One of the conditions says that the documentary should be shown to a “representative of the Government of India, if required, at least two weeks before final telecasting /screening”.

In a post on its website on Tuesday, ABC countered MEA allegations that Dias violated visa rules by making a “documentary”.

“Dias was also told she breached her visa by making a ‘documentary’, despite her and other ABC journalists having filed 30-minute pieces for the program for years without issue. Other outlets make similar-length current affairs programs on the same visa,” it said.

Visa row

Dias’s journalist visa (J1) was to expire on April 20. Working for the Australian public broadcaster for two-and-a-half years in India, she had applied for a routine one-year renewal in January.

In the latest episode of Looking for Modi with Avani Dias, she shared her experience with the Modi government on Monday.

“Then I got a call from someone from the Indian ministry, saying my routine visa extension application was not going to come through and that I have to leave the country in just couple of weeks. He specifically said it was because of the Sikh separatist story, saying it had gone too far and he even referenced this podcast. It felt really shocking. This place, my partner and I had called home for the past two and a half years. This place we have loved so much was not going to be home anymore. And we were being forced to leave on Indian government’s terms. We were not sure if we would ever go back to India,” she said.

She also said it was getting difficult for her to cover elections, and public events without press accreditation. “It felt too difficult to do my job in India. I was struggling to get into public events run by Modi’s party, the government wouldn’t even give me the passes I need to cover the election and the ministry left it all so late, that we were already packed up and ready to go,” Dias said in her podcast.

However, the MEA official said the Election Commission of India did not give press accreditation to her due to uncertainty over her visa extension. “One thing will follow another. We had a discussion with ECI on this. One can’t get press accreditation until there is clarity on visa extension,” said the official. “There are several video stories and documentaries shot by foreign journalists. We don’t have any issue. But there are areas for which you need requisite permission, which she did not have. Even some islands in Australia are out of bounds for foreign journalists.”

India has come under severe criticism for its unenviable track record on the press freedom index. Newslaundry had earlier reported how journalists who report negative stories are given shorter visas.

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