India’s tax crackdown on the BBC, weeks after it aired a documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has made news around the world. But foreign correspondents based in the country say this is not the first act of hostility by the Modi government.

Privately, since 2019, they allege they have been facing visa uncertainty, denial of travel permits, even deportation threats, prompting them to conduct internal surveys to capture the extent of the harassment.

These surveys, which Scroll has seen, paint a picture of growing intimidation, which many respondents attributed to their critical reporting of the government. They said the government wanted to suppress coverage of the persecution of religious minorities in India and regions such as Kashmir and Assam.

Many left anonymous comments in the surveys stating that they had been “summoned” by officials and ministers and shown “files” and “spreadsheets” detailing their “negative coverage”.

A journalist working for a European news organisation recounted an instance of the Indian embassy in their home country emailing the publication, asking it “not to cover Muslim persecution”. (Scroll has reviewed this email sent by a senior Indian diplomat to the news organisation in 2020. Identifying details are being withheld on request.)

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Delhi has shared the findings of these surveys with the Ministry of External Affairs, officials on the board of the club said. “The discussions are ongoing,” one of them said, requesting anonymity. “The ministry has told us they will be taking up the issues with the relevant authorities.”

Scroll has sought a response from the ministry to the allegations made by the foreign journalists in the surveys. The ministry is yet to respond.

Restricting access

The surveys were conducted by journalists based in Delhi, who are members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, among foreign correspondents all over the country. The first survey was carried out among 40 journalists in January 2020, in the aftermath of major upheavals in Jammu and Kashmir and Assam.

In August 2019, the Indian government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. As foreign journalists prepared to travel to report on the impact of the move, they were told by the external affairs ministry that they had to seek prior permission to travel anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir, including the capital, Srinagar.

Until then, only “parts of Jammu and Kashmir” were included in the government’s list of restricted and protected areas for which foreign journalists require travel permits from the home ministry. Even the partial restriction on travel to J&K had gone largely unenforced, barring a brief period in 1990, according to journalists who have been in the country for decades.

The noose, however, had started tightening since 2016. In May that year, the external affairs ministry sent an email to foreign correspondents “reiterating” that travel permits were required for visiting Nagaland, Sikkim, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and parts of Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir. Two years later, it sent another reminder on similar lines.

But in August 2019, it extended the restrictions to the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, which has resulted in a near-total ban on foreign reporting from the former state that is now directly governed by New Delhi. No foreign correspondent has since independently gone on a reporting trip to the Kashmir valley.

In October, the Indian government arranged a Kashmir tour for select members of a European Union parliamentary delegation. Photo: PTI

Around the same time, Assam was updating its National Register of Citizens – a highly contentious exercise that critics said targeted religious and linguistic minorities. Although Assam was not officially on the list of places that foreign correspondents required a permit to visit, a foreign journalist was allegedly put back on a plane by state authorities in September 2019.

The January 2020 survey attempted to capture the extent of this clampdown. Of the 30 foreign journalists who had applied for travel permits in 2019 – most to report from Kashmir and Assam – 21 never heard back.

One of the respondents stated:

“Applied in late 2018 for permit [sic] to Kashmir, and got it. Reported there in Jan/Feb 2019. Applied for Kashmir permit again in Aug 2019, but never got a reply. MEA said ‘application under review.’ Checked back every few weeks/months, and no response. Applied in Dec 2019 for Assam, and was told the process now takes 10 weeks, and that I must show airline & hotel bookings that far in advance. Have not yet re-applied with that info, mostly out of frustration.”

According to the latest guidelines of the external affairs ministry shared with foreign correspondents, restricted and protected places now include all eight North Eastern states, the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Andaman and Nicobar Island, Lakshadweep, and “international border areas” in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan.

The new document also puts in writing the time the home ministry would take for processing these permits: “8-10 weeks”.

Weaponising visa extensions?

A second survey was conducted in April 2021 – 41 journalists participated in it. It was wider in scope. Apart from travel permits, it delved into matters of visas and “working conditions”, since the Modi government had by then started weaponising the extension of visas, journalists who carried out the survey explained.

In some cases, the extension given to foreign correspondents perceived to be critical of the administration could be as little as six months (in some cases, even three), said respondents Scroll spoke to.

Five journalists who participated in the survey said their visas were extended only for six months or less when they last applied.

A journalist who participated in the survey that year wrote, “I was summoned to the Indian high commission in [redacted] when applying for my visa and told my stories were too anti-government.”

This after the “ministry of home affairs wrote a letter to my editor…following a story I wrote on Tablighi Jamaat to complain”.

Another journalist wrote, “When I applied for my visa extension abroad the Consulate requested me to write positive stories on [Narendra] Modi’s success.”

Several journalists wrote about being summoned by officials for their “coverage of Kashmir”.

In this survey too, journalists expressed frustration about not getting reporting permits to report from the protected areas like Kashmir and the North East in time. That year, 96% of those who applied did not get the permit.

Wrote a journalist:

“I applied to do some time-sensitive reporting in Assam on the pandemic and was assured I would receive a permit within ten days. That did not happen. First I was asked to resubmit the application with revised dates for my trip, three weeks later than originally planned. I did so, then received no answer for more than a month. After inquiring again, I was asked to resubmit the application for a second time but told it would take up to four weeks to process. It’s impossible to do timely journalism – or indeed any journalism – in areas restricted by the government under the current system.”

The results of both the 2020 and 2021 surveys were separately shared with the external affairs ministry soon after their conclusion, members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club said.

Media personnel outside the BBC office in New Delhi on February 15, the first day of the tax surveys. Photo: AFP

Another survey, more concerns

A third survey was conducted in February, 2022.

The number of participants in this survey was significantly lower: 21 foreign correspondents. Those conducting the survey attributed the drop in participation to the lack of any tangible improvements in the working conditions of the foreign press, despite the previous two surveys being shared with the government.

In terms of broader patterns, the recent survey mirrors the previous two rounds.

Not a single participant who applied for a special reporting permit in 2021 had received it. “I am not applying anymore as the clearance is never given,” said a journalist.

The level and extent of intimidation, however, seems to have risen.

A journalist claimed to have been “followed, interrogated”, and their “interviewee threatened” while covering a story on the persecution of Christians in Karnataka.

Another journalist alleged “physical threats from the Indian authorities” even as a third correspondent said they had been “threatened with deportation twice”.

Visa extensions, according to the survey, remain a tool to penalise unflattering coverage.

A foreign correspondent claimed they had “received two times a six-month visa in the last three years as a warning”. “I was summoned to the MEA who criticised my work,” they said.

Said another journalist:

“I feel like it has been used as a tool to punish me when the Indian authorities do not like stories I write. I was given a two month visa, which stopped me from renting property or leaving the country to visit sick and ailing family members. I have worked here for over three years and never had a visa for longer than six months.”

‘Vicious cycle’

Scroll spoke to several journalists who participated in these surveys. Apart from these concerns, they lamented the government’s lack of willingness to engage with them in good faith and being constantly accused of “having an agenda”.

“We have been reaching out to them,” said a European journalist. “We may have a certain perspective, but that doesn’t mean we are right or we won’t correct it, but for that we need to talk.”

One of the respondents in the survey made a similar point. “Even though we are diligent in going to the relevant ministry and the Prime Minister’s office for comment, people rarely respond and when they do it is to deliberately prevent any real interaction between the media and the government,” the journalist said. “Hence the government feels its views are not properly represented – it is a vicious circle.”