Choking international correspondents

Published in Daily Times on May 18th 2014

I had the opportunity to meet Meena Menon at a close friend’s house in Islamabad many months back. She was sociable and inviting. We talked about The Hindu where she worked as its Pakistan correspondent. The paper holds the reputation of being among the region’s most balanced papers with high editorial standards. We discussed how limited her travel was to any place in the country other than Islamabad. I asked her, “How can you report about a country without moving from its constricted and bureaucratic capital?” I believe acquiring a visa, too, was a laborious process.

There are many ways freedom of the press can be choked. Travel restrictions for journalists within the country and delays or harassment during visa issuing are certainly the more obvious tactics. They are also the most petty and futile. With the regular flow of information and as more journalists are speaking up on the internet, granting only two people from India access to practice journalism in Pakistan is ludicrous as it is insulting to our understanding of journalism as a nation.

When I looked her up later she had written prolifically on politics, gender issues, minority rights and the environment. She was like any other right thinking journalist concerned about the Pakistani government’s obsession about being “preoccupied with granting olive branches to the Taliban”. Why is it that we are unable to stomach someone holding up a mirror to us, not only when it comes from the journalists of a country we have been at war with, but also from gung-ho Pakistani patriots? And these patriots are not of the kind that are flash jingoists, who make religious devotion out of country love, but those of the Carl Schurz breed: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right and if wrong, to be set right.”

Meena Menon was among us, playing the part that we are so desperately trying to play: of awakening the conscience of our government to have people-focused policies. She was asked to leave by the government without any explanation. So was another journalist, Snehesh Alex Philip, of the Press Trust of India. Last year, New York Times columnist Declan Walsh was expelled swiftly. The decision was clearly made by people who do not understand the sophistry of veteran correspondents or how essential they are in keeping Pakistan on the global information map.

While on one hand we asphyxiate the voices of international journalism, on the other we legitimise the terrorists by dotting our front pages with headlines on what they want to do, do not want to see being done and, finally, how they will have their way. This is a bleak situation; one that does not come at a good time. As Modi takes power in India, we already have pundits warning about the volatility of the region increasing. Modi, they say, could be more prone to a confrontation with Pakistan over Kashmir or, God forbid, another terrorism incident like the one in Mumbai.

Our prime minister must recognise that if the future of this country is to be unshackled from political tragedies and a populace that is economically anaemic, he must take certain confidence building measures towards India. Expelling top journalists is not one. This decision signals a suspicion on how perhaps the government is less in control and the army more so, even in matters that concern governance. Both trends are harrowing. They must be reversed. For the sake of Pakistan.


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