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'Was Told Report Crossed a Line': Visa Extension Delayed, Australian Correspondent Leaves India

'It's by design. The Narendra Modi government has made me feel so uncomfortable that we decided to leave,' Avani Dias said.
Avani Dias. Photo: www.abc.net.au/news/avani-dias

New Delhi: The India correspondent of Australia’s national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, has had to leave the country after what the Sydney Morning Herald has said was a “campaign of intimidation and bureaucratic meddling by the nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

Avani Dias, whose bio on X identifies her as the South Asia Bureau Chief of ABC News, has written on the social media platform that she had to leave India “abruptly” last week after the Union government initially turned down the possibility of extending her visa by citing her journalism.

“Last week, I had to leave India abruptly. The Modi Government told me my visa extension would be denied, saying my reporting “crossed a line”. After Australian Government intervention, I got a mere two-month extension …less than 24 hours before my flight,” Dias wrote.

There was no public response from the Ministry of External Affairs, but official sources later claimed on Tuesday night that Dias had “violated visa rules” in the course of her work and termed her contention that she was compelled to leave the country as “false, misleading and mischievous”.

The Modi government had blocked her reporting on YouTube in an episode of the show ‘Foreign Correspondent’ – a story which covered the killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, which Canada accused India of orchestrating. YouTube also told ABC News that “it was directed” to block a story about Nijjar’s death and on how Australian Security Intelligence Organisation agents allegedly met with Sikh activists in Australia.

In its report, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that the intervention that Dias speaks of in her post on X was lobbying from the office of Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong. However, the two-month visa extension arrived after she and her partner had packed up their New Delhi home and made arrangements to leave, the report adds.

A report on ABC News on Dias’s return, quotes her from her podcast, ‘Looking for Modi’, as having said that it became difficult for her to do her job in India and that this was done intentionally so that she had to leave:

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

Dias added on X that she and ABC News were told that she could not be allowed to cover the elections either.

“We were also told my election accreditation would not come through because of an Indian Ministry directive. We left on day one of voting in the national election in what Modi calls “the mother of democracy”,” she posted on X.

The Herald report also says that while the Australian government was working behind the scenes, the Press Information Bureau told ABC that Dias would not be granted election accreditation “because of a direct order from [the Ministry] of External Affairs.”

Official sources said Dias had violated visa rules but that it had agreed to renew her visa anyway.

“Dias was found to have violated visa rules while undertaking her professional pursuits. [In spite] of this, on her request, she was assured that her visa would be extended for the coverage of the general elections. Her previous visa was valid till 20th April 2024,” official sources said.

They added: “She paid the visa fee on 18th April and her visa was extended till end June the same day. She, however, chose to leave India on 20th April. At the time of her departure she held a valid visa and her extension of visa stood approved.”

On Dias saying she was denied accreditation to cover the elections, the sources said journalist visa holders only needed permission to access polling booths and counting stations but that this permission could not be granted “while the visa extension is under process”.

“It is pertinent to note that other ABC correspondents – Meghna Bali and Som Patidar – have already received their letters,” they said.

The union and industry advocate for Australia’s creative professionals, has noted that it is appalled.

India’s worsening press freedom has made news often.

In February, French journalist Vanessa Dougnac, who had been the longest serving foreign correspondent in India, left the country after the government issued a two-week revocation of her Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card last month, for alleged concerns over her reporting.

India is in the bottom 19 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, at 161 out of 180.

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