ABC reporter 'forced' from India in worrying turn for 'world's largest democracy'

The ABC’s South Asia bureau chief said she has always had 'a feeling of unease' reporting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in India.

An Australian journalist says she was essentially “forced” to leave India last week after being told by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government her reporting had “crossed a line”. The alarming move by the country touted as "the world's largest democracy" comes amid ongoing warning signs its leader was taking the country – and key Australian ally – down an increasingly autocratic path.

The ABC’s South Asia bureau chief Avani Dias has spent more than two-and-a-half years living in the country. On Tuesday, she revealed she was effectively booted from the country.

"Last week, I had to leave India abruptly. The Modi Government told me my visa extension would be denied," she tweeted. "After Australian Government intervention, I got a mere two-month extension ...less than 24 hours before my flight."

Avani Dias reporting from the field in India.
The ABC’s South Asia bureau chief Avani Dias says she was forced out of the country. Source: Avani Dias

She claims the leader’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party made it increasingly hard for her to report on current events, including the general election that began last week and will run until June 1.

“There’s always a feeling of unease that this sort of backlash could come your way as a journalist in India,” Dias said in the latest episode of her podcast Looking for Modi. “I’ve felt it the whole time I've been here. So have my colleagues from different publications.”

Despite this, one month ago Dias published a Foreign Correspondent episode where she investigated the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh independence advocate whose killing last year is at the centre of a widening rift between India and Canada.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in the months following his government was investigating “credible allegations” Indian government agents were linked to the June 18 slaying.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese embrace
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese embrace. India is a key ally for the country. Source: AAP

ABC journalist's visa denied by Modi government

Anticipating a reaction from the Modi government over the program, Dias said she was not surprised when the clip was blocked on YouTube in India.

“Now when you try to watch it on YouTube in India, it says ‘This content is currently unavailable in this country because of an order from the government related to national security or public order’,” she explained on her podcast, noting similar stories from other publications had also been “taken down” weeks earlier.

Believing that was the end of it, Dias — who was waiting for her visa renewal at the time — admitted she was confused when she randomly received a phone call from “someone from the Indian ministry”.

“[They said] my routine visa extension application wasn’t going to come through and that I have to leave the country in just a couple of weeks. He specifically said it was because of my 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 last two-and-a-half years. This place we had loved so much was not going to be home anymore, and we were being forced to leave on the Indian government’s terms.”

After weeks of lobbying by the Australian government, Dias said she was granted a two-month extension just 24 hours before she was due to board her flight home.

“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,” she said.

“It’s by design. The Narendra Modi government has made me feel so uncomfortable that we decided to leave.”

The ABC said Dias will continue to cover the Indian election from Australia while a colleague remains overseas.

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Peter Greste, an advocate for media freedom, said not renewing Dias' visa "undermines international relations"

“If India wants to be taken seriously as a democracy, it won’t stand in the way of foreign correspondents doing their jobs. Even if the reporting is uncomfortable, it must stand by that principle," he said.

"The ABC is one of the few news organisations with its own staff correspondent on the subcontinent. That makes it vitally important for Australia’s understanding of how India works.

“Not renewing the correspondent’s visa makes it harder for Australians to gain a nuanced view of India, and undermines international relations. Aveni’s visa must be reissued as a matter of urgency."

India's 'democracy is under increasing threat'

While Modi — who is running for a third term — is broadly popular in India, where he’s considered a champion of the country’s Hindu majority and has overseen rapid economic growth, there has been much worldwide debate about the country’s eroding democratic values and a shrinking space for dissent and free media.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is given a ceremonial welcome in Australia.
Under Narendra Modi India has cracked down on press freedom. Source: AAP

A damning report released in March by the V-Dem Institute, which tracks democratic freedoms worldwide, states India is now classified as an “electoral autocracy”.

“Democracy is under increasing threat from authoritarianism in India,” political professor Nitasha Kaul said in an analysis article published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs last year.

“While the trappings of procedural democracy exist, the mere holding of elections does not guarantee whether people will be able to exercise their rights without fear, whether constitutional bodies will be able to act without the need to show favour, or ensure an elected government will act in ways that respect the rights of minorities.”

Reporters Without Borders has warned that “press freedom is in crisis” in India, stating 28 journalists had been killed in the 10 years Modi has been prime minister — almost half of which were working on environmental stories.

with AP

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