7 March 2002
The Times of India
Saarc trips over media visas
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
Islamabad: Restrictions on journalists and the question of the ‘‘free flow of information featured prominently on the opening day of the Saarc information ministers’ meet here, with the tall statements of South Asian governments contrasting sharply with their actual policies on the ground.
Claiming that he was all for journalists from Saarc countries having easy access to the entire region, General Musharraf pleaded that he was ‘‘unaware’’ of the fact that Indian journalists had been denied visas to Pakistan ever since September 11. Sidestepping the recent controversy over the ouster of The News editor Shaheen Sehbai for carrying a damaging news story on the British-born terrorist Omar Sheikh, Musharraf grandly told the inaugural session that the media in Pakistan was absolutely free. ‘‘I hope that this is right,’’ he asked rhetorically, pointing to the large contingent of Pakistani journalists present. No one demurred.
‘‘I appreciate criticism of myself,’’ the general said, adding, without a trace of irony, ‘‘as long as it is correct.’’
At a press conference later in the evening, information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj took an equally unhelpful line on the issue of journalist visas. Saying the issue of journalists’ visas was a bilateral matter, Swaraj said that as in the case of the flight ban, the Indian government could not frame its policies on the basis of what is convenient or inconvenient for some. ‘‘You cannot see things in isolation,’’ she said. ‘‘We cannot treat journalists separately. Like the flight ban, this issue can only be resolved when the situation on the ground (regarding India’s demands on Pakistan) improves.’’
Earlier in the day, Bangladeshi information minister Abdul Moin Khan made an impassioned plea for South Asian governments to commit themselves to the free flow of information and objectivity in reporting.