A group of foreign correspondents in India on Tuesday protested Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s South Asia bureau chief Avani Dias being “effectively pushed out” of India by the Union government after being told that her visa would not be extended due to her reporting on a Sikh separatist’s killing.

“...though not technically expelling her, Indian authorities have effectively pushed out a foreign correspondent on the eve of an election that the government describes as the largest democratic exercise in the world,” the correspondents said in an open letter.

“Foreign journalists in India have grappled with increased restrictions on visas and journalism permits for those holding the status of Overseas Citizens of India,” said the letter shared on social media by Financial Times’ South Asia bureau chief John Reed. “The circumstances of Ms Dias’ departure are further causes for concern.”

They called on New Delhi to “facilitate the vital work of a free press” in line with India’s democratic traditions.

Dias said in a social media post on Tuesday: “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 lobbying by Australian authorities, Dias’ visa was eventually extended for two months, a day before she left India. Nevertheless, she left the country on April 19 after she was told that her “election accreditation would not come through because of an Indian ministry directive”.

This came weeks after YouTube blocked access in India to an episode of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s news series Foreign Correspondent and a news package on the killing of Canadian Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Nijjar’s killing had led to diplomatic strife between New Delhi and Ottawa. In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told his country’s Parliament that intelligence agencies were actively pursuing “credible allegations” tying agents of the Indian government to the Sikh separatist’s death. India had described this claim as “absurd and motivated”.

In an episode of her podcast titled Looking for Modi published on Monday, Dias said that she had been living and working in India for the last two-and-a-half years.

In March, while waiting for the annual renewal of her visa, she received a call from an official of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Dias said the official told her that her “routine visa extension application was not going to come through” and that she would have to leave the country before her visa expired. “He specifically said it was because of my Sikh separatist story...saying it had gone too far...and he even referenced this podcast,” said the journalist.

According to a report by the broadcasting corporation’s news website, the official also told Dias that she had violated her visa by making a documentary. This came “despite her and other ABC journalists having filed 30-minute pieces for the programme for years without issue”, said the report.

On April 16, the Press Information Bureau told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that there was “no chance” Dias would get the accreditation to cover the Lok Sabha elections because of an order by the external affairs ministry, people familiar with the matter told Scroll.

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