Journalists sans borders

Keeping journalists out of each other’s countries does not serve any purpose for either Pakistan or India

The hostility between India and Pakistan, two neighbours still battling demons from their past, is hurting the people of both nations. Many Pakistanis now feel that there could be enormous opportunities and countless incentives for both neighbours to establish friendly relations for mutual benefit. When Mian Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), came to power once again after the general elections in May 2013, many analysts observed that it would lead to improved ties between India and Pakistan. Mian sahib’s willingness for bilateral talks, de-escalating tensions, and establishing trust to find ways and means to resolve all political and geopolitical issues between the two countries is no secret. Both countries can save a major part of their budget currently being spent on defence, which can be used for providing basic facilities to their people in health, education, a clean environment and other human development programmes. In this regard, the media of both India and Pakistan can also play a vital and positive role in rebuffing hardliners, overcoming obstacles, and bringing the Indo-Pak ruling heads closer for a better understanding. Unfortunately, by not extending the visas of The Hindu’s correspondent Anita Joshua and Press Trust of India’s (PTI’s) correspondent Rezaul Hasan Laskar till their replacements arrived in Islamabad, the state of Pakistan has sent a wrong signal.

Since the decision was seemingly not taken by the new democratic government, it remains to be seen what measures Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would take to address this issue. Some people are of the view that both Anita and Rezaul were asked to leave by the powers-that-be to send a message to Mian sahib that his peace overtures towards India were not ‘welcome’. Others believe that the two Indian journalists were sent back because no Pakistani correspondents have been posted in India for almost three years now due to some procedural reasons (these procedures have got nothing to do with India). It is rather unfortunate that the Indian correspondents had to suffer because of Pakistan’s own lack of ‘enthusiasm’ in posting its correspondents in New Delhi.

I first met Rezaul Hasan Laskar and his lovely wife Lamat soon after they arrived in Pakistan back in 2007. Since then I have become good friends with the couple. I have had the good fortune of being mentioned in their blog in rather kind words. Thus when I heard that Rezaul had been asked to leave last month, I felt quite sad. I had just bid farewell to Anita in May and to attend another farewell, this time for Rezaul, made me feel quite helpless. Once again, I questioned the logic behind this longstanding rivalry between the two countries. We live in the twenty-first century where technology and the internet has revolutionised the media but when it comes to India and Pakistan, the Indo-Pak media is still being held hostage to the whims of their respective establishments.

Imtiaz Alam, Secretary General South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), says: “We have been proposing that there may be no restriction on opening up of bureau offices by various media organisations of both India and Pakistan. There should be no restrictions on numbers (of journalists) and places (city-specific visas). Movement should be free of hassles and hurdles except for some necessary care for journalists’ security. SAFMA had suggested that there should be at least six bureaus each in both the countries to start with. Unfortunately, even the two-each journalist quota is not being appropriately followed. Lack of access to and free flow of information is a great resource of information-deficit in the subcontinent. As SAARC, especially in its 14th Summit, emphasised, connectivity is a prerequisite for any type of cooperation at the regional level. SAFMA has been emphasising for the liberalisation of visa regime for journalists or businesspersons, artists, academics, physicians, students and players in particular. Free flow of information, goods and people is essential to any kind of meaningful regional cooperation. Regrettably, both India and Pakistan continue to resist or hinder people-to-people contacts and keep SAARC’s growth handicapped due to their bilateral issues.”

Pakistan’s obsession with India is tearing apart the basic fabric of Pakistani society, leading to a self-destructive phase. In order for us to battle our inner demons and monsters created by the state, it is pertinent for Pakistan to normalise relations with all its neighbours, especially India. Both countries are wasting resources in their nuclear arms race at the cost of their impoverished masses. Peace between the two countries still seems like a distant dream. To turn this dream into a reality, we need a policy shift. SAFMA and other such organisations are trying to bridge the gap between the two countries but that is not enough. What we need is for both governments to realise that keeping journalists – and others – out of each other’s countries does not serve any purpose whatsoever other than creating further misunderstanding between the two nations. It is time to let go of such regressive policies and move forward.

(Originally published in Pragati)

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