World’s biggest democracy expels ABC journalist but little noise in Australia

Apr 24, 2024
A closeup of an Indian business visa vignette inside a passport. Image:iStock/xrrr

One wonders how the Australian mainstream media will react to the news that India, the so-called biggest democracy in the world, has thrown out ABC correspondent Avani Dias from the country.

Dias was denied a visa after her program Sikhs, Spies and Murder: Investigating India’s alleged hit on foreign soil was aired on the ABC ‘s weekly Foreign Correspondent slot.

Even intervention by the Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong was of no use; Dias was apparently granted only a two-month extension which she learnt of only after deciding to pack up and leave. Wong has often described Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as her friend and colleague. Looks like friendship doesn’t mean much these days.

When Australian journalists were forced to leave China, the media was all over the story, blaming the Communist government, the authoritarian regime and the dictator Xi Jinping for the booting out of scribes. They could not find enough negatives to describe the Middle Kingdom and the people who run it.

One wonders what they will now call Narendra Modi, the Hindu fundamentalist leader of India, often lauded as a great champion of democracy, as he bids for a third term in elections that kicked off on April 19 and run over six weeks.

I’m betting that great supporters of the rules-based international order like Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald will adopt a much circumspect tone when writing about this incident, one that shows Modi has a skin thinner than that of an onion. Anyone willing to give me odds?

The Nine newspapers have given an indication of how the story will be played down, with The Age planting it way down the front page of their website, with the innocuous heading “Her investigations were not welcome in Modi’s India, so neither was she”.

Anyone who has worked in a real newspaper and not some tabloid rag – which is what The Age has become – would know that the headline should be something like “India expels ABC correspondent over coverage of Sikh issue.” Short and to the point. And it should be the lead story.

But then The Age had more important stories to promote; the lead was a story about some Chinese firm which has been allowed to use money donated by Australia to build a port in Nauru. The scoop is that the Chinese firm is dodgy! Imagine that – a company taking bribes!

Probably only Bernard Keane, the politics editor of the online newsletter Crikey, will call a spade a spade as he has done in the past and criticise Modi as any right-thinking journalist should.

Dias’ program on the Sikhs included interviews with Kanwar Pal Singh, a Sikh separatist leader in Punjab who heads an organisation known as Dal Khalsa; during the filming of the program Dias was monitored by Indian intelligence and, at one stage, blocked from filming close to the border with Pakistan, a site where permission to film had been initially granted.

India forced YouTube to take down this program from its site and also remove an earlier program in March which reported on Australian spy agency ASIO making contact with Sikhs in Australia associated with the separatism movement, a campaign for an ethno-religious state known as Khalistan.

Modi and his government have probably not heard of the Streisand effect – “an unintended consequence of attempts to hide, remove, or censor information, where the effort instead backfires by increasing public awareness of the information.”

Dias has also done a number of podcasts about Modi’s India and all of them are worth listening to. You can find them all linked here.

“The Modi administration gave me the visa in the very last minute,” Dias says in the final episode.

“But it felt too difficult to do my job in India. I was struggling to get into public events run by Modi’s party. The government wouldn’t even give me the passes I need to cover the election.

“It’s by design. The Narendra Modi government has made me feel so uncomfortable that we decided to leave.”

The greatest democracy in the world indeed!

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