Sunday, Nov 09, 2003
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By K.K. Katyal
During discussions on confidence-building measures by India and Pakistan (and in bilateral interaction between the SAARC countries, in general), the issues related to the free flow of information and easy movement of mediapersons have received scant attention. The SAARC, too, has yet to take up these matters hopefully for a positive decision. In their informal pro-forma comments, leaders of the member-governments do recognise the importance of removing the curbs on the movement of mediapersons and media products but have not been able to undertake the required initiatives.
Come to think of it. Journalists from the rest of the world, including those known for their animus for one or the other country of the region, have a free run but those from India and Pakistan cannot visit each other's country, in the normal course. The irony is all the greater because the stuff, dished out by the mediapersons from outside the region, at times slanted and prejudiced, finds its way into the newspapers and television channels of the region.
In the case of India and Pakistan, the restrictions become doubly stringent because of the restrictive visa regime (under which visits are permitted only to a specified city, "within its municipal limits".) As such, mediapersons from one country are unable to cover the developments in the other. What is the result? Disinformation, misperceptions, rumours, affecting the lay people and policy-makers alike. They are prepared to accept the worst about the other side without verification (which in any case, is not possible). In the past, joint India-Pakistan Commissioners did make some half-hearted recommendations to ease the curbs but there was no follow-up action. The last such attempt was made in 1989, after the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi's bilateral visit to Islamabad. The External Affairs Minister of the day, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was with Rajiv Gandhi, stayed on to work out new norms, raising hopes of relaxations. In practice, the situation took a turn for the worse.
Of late, South-Asia Free Media Association, a mainstream organisation of mediapersons of the region, strived hard to get the SAARC interested in the matter. At its annual meeting in Kathmandu in January last year, it proposed a protocol on "free movement of mediapersons and media products across the South Asia region".
The organisation sought to have it included in the agenda of the SAARC summit (at Kathmandu) but did not succeed. This was despite the assurance of help by the Prime Minister of the host country, Sher Bahadur Deuba. Instead, it was entrusted to the conference of Information Ministers of the region. Later, when they met in Islamabad (India was represented by Sushma Swaraj), the prospects of a positive decision, that is, a recommendation by them for including the issue in the SAARC agenda brightened. However, there was no movement forward. Whether it was because of bureaucratic hurdles was not clear.
The SAARC Information Ministers are due to meet again in New Delhi from November 10 to 12. There is a strong case for their picking up the thread from where it was left at the Islamabad meeting and giving a formal shape to their supportive sentiments. That should not be a problem, given the positive stand taken by member-countries on various occasion. For instance, Begum Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh Prime Minister, told the SAFMA meeting in Dhaka earlier this year that she approved of the objective, "unfettered freedom of the media and freedom from all controls". This was so even though her Government made no secret of its unhappiness about the role of some foreign journalists. India's Foreign Office, too, would like the Information Ministers' conference to take up this issue saying, "it would certainly be a useful input". The stand of the Pakistan Information Minister at the Islamabad meeting was supportive too.The SAFMA protocol deals with the issue comprehensively. Among other things, it would like each SAARC country to: 1) eradicate all non-tariff barriers to free movement of mediapersons, to begin with, those with ten years of recognised professional standing, as also of mediaproducts, including newspapers, magazines, books, cassettes, software, electronically-transmitted features, stories, news, etc, and 2) facilitate the grant of multi-entry five-year visa of countrywide validity to duly-accredited professional mediapersons of ten years' standing.
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