ABC journalist Avani Dias told routine visa extension would be denied, days after India targeted her work on YouTube

ABC journalist Avani Dias told routine visa extension would be denied, days after India targeted her work on YouTube
  • PublishedApril 24, 2024

ABC News South Asia bureau chief Avani Dias was told a routine visa extension would be denied by the Indian government, days after it blocked her reporting on YouTube in the country. 

Dias was informed of the decision via a phone call from an official at the Ministry of External Affairs, who said her most recent Foreign Correspondent episode “crossed a line”.

The episode covered the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada last year, which led to a major global dispute after Canada accused Indian government agents of involvement in his murder.

It was blocked on YouTube in India, along with a related news story.

After weeks of lobbying by Australian diplomats and the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, the Indian government finally overturned the decision and renewed the visa for two months  – less than 24 hours before Dias was due to leave the country.

“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 an episode of her podcast, Looking for Modi.

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

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has cracked down on international media who have reported on the Canadian killing in recent months, ahead of the general election that began on April 19, where he is seeking a third term.

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.

During their investigation for the episode, the ABC crew faced pressure from Indian authorities.

They were questioned by Indian criminal intelligence officials about their reporting and were blocked from filming a public event in Punjab.

ABC managing director David Anderson said the broadcaster stood by Dias’ reporting.

“The ABC fully backs and stands by the important and impactful reporting by Avani Dias during her time as ABC correspondent in India,” he said.

“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.”

Election underway

India has almost a billion registered voters, who started heading to the polls last week, in a rolling election with people in different parts of the country voting at different times over a month.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a rare third term in office, which would see him hold power for 15 years by the conclusion of the term.

Mr Modi and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hold a commanding majority of seats in parliament.

Reporters Without Borders has warned “press freedom is in crisis” in India, noting in its most recent report that an average of three or four journalists are killed in connection with their work in the country every year.

Dias will continue to cover the Indian election for ABC News now that she has returned to Australia before joining Four Corners, while her colleague Meghna Bali remains in Delhi.

“There’s always a feeling of unease that this sort of backlash could come your way as a journalist in India,” Dias said in her podcast.

“I’ve felt it the whole time I’ve been here. So have my colleagues from different publications.”

Press freedom under pressure

Reports on the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Sikh separatist movement and how other religious minorities are treated have been targeted by takedown orders.

On March 25, YouTube informed the ABC it had received a takedown order from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) over the upload of Sikhs, Spies and Murder: Investigating India’s Alleged Hit on Foreign Soil and a news package on a story about ASIO agents meeting with Sikh activists in Australia regarding Mr Nijjar’s death.

YouTube said the specific order was “confidential” but said it came under India’s Information Technology Act (2000).

At the time of the YouTube removal, the ABC said it stood by the journalism of the story.

“It was meticulously researched and balanced and sought an array of perspectives, and upholds the highest editorial standards,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“We defend the audience’s fundamental right to access this story, regardless of their location.”

Earlier in March, the Indian government had YouTube block access to a video by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Fifth Estate program that featured footage of Mr Nijjar’s killing.

CBC said social media company X had also informed it the Indian government had sent a legal removal demand over the story.

“Indian law obligates X to withhold access to this content in India; however, the content remains available elsewhere,” X said in an email to the CBC.

“We disagree with this action and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts. Following the Indian legal process, we are in current communication with the Indian authorities.”

A BBC documentary examining the role of Mr Modi during 2002 sectarian riots in the western state of Gujarat was also blocked under the legislation.

The Indian Finance Ministry also accused the BBC of tax evasion, with three days of searches in the British broadcaster’s Delhi and Mumbai offices last February, just weeks after the BBC documentary aired.


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