Tom Heinemann with his wife and camerawoman, Lotte la Cour (Paul Gomes)
Tom Heinemann with his wife and camerawoman, Lotte la Cour (Paul Gomes)

India: Let us in!

In 2005, we deliberately violated the immigration laws of India. We broke the law by producing a documentary film even though we had entered the country on a tourist visa. We broke the law because we wanted to show that Scandinavian companies were in violation of many other laws in India.

Ever since then we have been unable to get either a journalist or tourist visa. We have been banned from India. But the problem has recently grown to be much bigger than just our own.

We did nothing worse than – I guess – hundreds of colleagues have been doing for years. Getting a journalist visa to film a documentary requires at least six weeks of waiting. And you have to tell the Indian authorities what you are going to do, who you are going to talk to, where and when you will do that, as well as submit a synopsis for the project.

This sort of restrictions makes critical, investigative journalism impossible.

Our 2005 film, “A Killer Bargain,” showed how Danish and Swedish multinational pesticide and textile companies grossly violated the labor and environmental laws of India.

India has, on paper, some very good laws to protect human beings and the environment but, as in many developing countries, it is the implementation of such laws that is lacking. And the Western companies doing business in India know this. A little “grease” here and there and there will be no problem.  No problem, that is, until the journalists arrive.

At the end of “A Killer Bargain,” one of the main characters quotes Ghandi: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

Those wise words, spoken decades before this phase of roaring globalization hit us, were precisely what the film is about. No matter how much “corporate social responsibility” we hear about, no matter how much Western companies tell us of their global citizenship, we have to investigate these issues, no matter where they take place.  We have to ask the critical questions.

This is what drives us as journalists; this is the obligation we have.

Our film had a huge impact, especially in Scandinavia. A large Danish pesticide company, which had sold extremely dangerous chemicals to poor Indian cotton farmers, stopped producing and selling those hazardous products that long had been banned in our part of the world. Large Swedish and Danish textile manufacturers got a huge wakeup call. Several of them changed their policies and now do much more to investigate and exert control on their supply chain.

Our film, made on a tourist visa, has been shown in more than 20 countries, sold to hundreds of American universities, and has been the recipient of numerous international awards. And even better, we have continued to follow the case and I am proud to say that the film has helped farmers and workers as well as the fragile environment in India.

In 2006 we wanted to go back to India and do more stories. But when we tried to get visas we were ordered out of the Indian embassy in Copenhagen with a V.A.F. stamp — visa application failed — in our passports. That means that any Indian embassy or consulate anywhere in the world must refuse us permission to enter the country.

Since then, our attempts to get into India have been stonewalled. We’ve written letters to the ambassador in Denmark, explaining the reasons for our earlier decisions and expressing our regrets. We wrote to the ambassador that we would apply for a legitimate journalist visa. No answer.

We’ve kept on trying. So has our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Union of Journalists in Denmark. And so did the World Health Organization’s Southeast Asia office in Delhi. And so have several Indian NGOs, which have invited us to do training sessions and lectures for journalists and field workers. Still, no response.

In 2008 we tried again to write to the then-newly-appointed Indian ambassador. As did our foreign affairs ministry. No answer.

I’m not the sort of person that normally keeps my mouth shut, but in this case I had thought it would be better if we tried, quietly, to let diplomacy work. 

A couple of weeks ago, we again tried to get a visa. This time we applied for a tourist visa. My wife and I wanted to go to Delhi and Goa to visit some close friends. We, along with some others, are sponsoring the education of four children of a dear friend in India. And we wanted to catch a little sun.

Again we were refused, and again we could not get an explanation. And again we got V.A.F. stamps in our passports. I’m convinced that we will never get a visa to India, so I’ve decided to break with our six years of quiet diplomacy. And my reason has to do with more than just our problem. Our case is nothing compared to a much more serious blow to international press freedom:

Just a week before we got the latest mark of Cain in our passports, the Indian embassy in Denmark announced that any staff or freelance journalist working for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), the largest media company in Denmark, will not be able to get any kind of visa to India.

Maybe this intransigence is due to anger over the 2010 DR version of the BBC-program, “Blood, Sweat and T-shirts.” It was a mix of a reality show and a documentary, following a group of Danish kids who went to work in the Indian textile industry, teaching them the harsh realities the Indian workforce faces every day producing goods for the Western world. It was popular here, but perhaps not so much with factory owners in India.

Or India’s decision might be due to a long-simmering dispute over the release of a Danish citizen accused of taking part in a 1995 airdrop of weapons in the Indian state of West Bengal. In 2011, Danish courts made the final decision not to hand him over — Denmark refuses to release anyone for trial to a country where there is a risk they will be tortured or their basic human rights violated. Ever since, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been as cold as the Siberian winter we are experiencing these days.  

We must judge a democracy by how it treats even the worst kind of behavior. But we must also judge a democracy by how it allows media to work. Any democratic country should be strong enough to let journalists cover any story they deem worthy, no matter where or what that story might be.

Now diplomats, many international journalist organizations like CPJ, our friends around the world, and our colleagues at DR are working hard to help us. My wife, the camera operator on our team, and I, are truly overwhelmed and honored by the massive global support that we have received. When these messages reach Delhi we hope they will have an even greater impact than we have been able to have.

Despite our critical coverage, we are deeply in love with India, a magnificent country in all its complex, colorful, warm, brutal, heart-breaking reality.

Let us in.