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Pakistan's Press Clampdown - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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New York Times journalist Declan Walsh, pictured before his expulsion from Pakistan on the eve of Pakistan's national elections. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

New York Times journalist Declan Walsh, pictured before his expulsion from Pakistan on the eve of Pakistan’s national elections. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Having lived in Islamabad for five and a half years, Rezaul Hasan Laskar—an Indian journalist—had to pack everything and leave Pakistan in two weeks. What was the reason behind this sudden departure? Pakistani authorities notified Laskar, like many other Indian migrants in Pakistan, he was no longer legally permitted to remain in Pakistan and his departure was imperative.

Laskar was waiting for a renewal of his visa when instead, on June 13, he received a letter informing him that he must leave Pakistan by June 23. The journalist panicked. His visa was expiring and without an extension to acknowledge his legal presence in the country, he would be unable to leave. After continual phone calls and inquiries, he was awarded an extension on June 25, which was regarded as a very ‘generous’ favor for the journalist by the authorities.

Admittedly, the India-Pakistan journalist exchange scheme is an accurate reflection of the more volatile wider bilateral relations between the two states. Both countries only allow two journalists from each country to be stationed in the other. Whilst India has decided to take advantage of the scheme, Pakistan does not currently have any journalists based in India, suggesting that they are uninterested in understanding their supposed enemy.

The Press Trust of India (PTI) and The Hindu each have a correspondent based in Islamabad. Traditionally, Indian journalists in Islamabad are allowed a short visa extension, with which their stay overlaps with their successors in order to facilitate a smooth transition without hindering journalistic coverage. However, Laskar and his colleague Anita Joshua—the second Indian journalist in Pakistan—were suddenly denied this right as they waited for the arrival of their successors.

Indeed, Laskar’s abrupt departure was the most recent in a series of similar incidents. Anita Joshua, of The Hindu, was asked to leave shortly after the elections, but before the new government took office. Moreover, Declan Walsh of the New York Times was forced to leave in May 2013, his notice period even shorter than that of his Indian counterparts.

The media in Pakistan reported the treatment of these foreign journalists. “The story of these three proves that Pakistan is fast turning into not just one of the most dangerous countries for journalists but also one of the most inhospitable…What else would you call a place that so abruptly orders out those who have been living here for years on such a short notice?” reads an article in the leading English language newspaper, Dawn.

These expulsions challenge the message of transparency that Pakistan’s authorities have tried to promote. Over a year ago, when Pakistan’s military took Joshua to Siachen, the former military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas said that it was “part of the Army’s campaign to open up,” adding that “maybe we are more confident than the Indians about our case.”

When the government authorities started expelling Indian journalists from Islamabad a comment in a leading Pakistani newspaper posed the following question: “Should one now assume that the Pakistanis are no longer confident about ‘their case’?”

Some of Pakistan’s journalists were highly critical of the government’s actions and detected a pattern of behavior by the authorities. In their articles and commentaries, they argue that, in the absence of democratically elected government, the military and intelligence agencies assert their authority more vigorously, expelling anyone they deem as ‘undesirable’ from Pakistan.

Their theory can be evidenced by the case of New York Times correspondent, Declan Walsh. Walsh, the paper’s Islamabad bureau chief, was expelled from Pakistan on the eve of national elections and was accused of unspecified “undesirable activities,” the paper reported on May 10 2013.

Walsh, described by his publication as a ‘veteran’ foreign correspondent, has been reporting from the country for more than nine years. He was handed a two-sentence letter at 12.30am on May 9 ordering him to leave.

“Your visa is hereby canceled in view of your undesirable activities,” the order said. “You are therefore advised to leave the country within 72 hours.”

The New York Times‘ executive editor, Jill Abramson, sent a letter of protest to Pakistan’s interior minister at the time, Malik Muhammad Halib Khan. She asked him to reinstate Walsh’s visa. “We respectfully request that you overturn this decision and allow Mr Walsh to remain in Pakistan,” Abramson said. She argued that the ministry’s accusation “is vague and unsupported, and Mr Walsh has received no further explanation of any alleged wrongdoing.”

Since the election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, many in the media industry have called on him to stop this practice of expelling foreign journalists from Pakistan.

It seems, however, that their pleas will go unheard, at least for now.