Australian journalist Avani Dias reporting on the death of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar for ABC's "Foreign Correspondent."
Australian journalist Avani Dias reporting in India on the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar for ABC's "Foreign Correspondent." The government ordered YouTube to block access to the documentary in India. (Screenshot: ABC/YouTube)

Australian journalist Avani Dias leaves India over visa delay, censorship

New Delhi, April 23, 2024—Indian authorities should safeguard press freedom and stop using visa regulations to prevent foreign journalists covering sensitive subjects, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

Avani Dias, South Asia bureau chief for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), left India on April 19, the first day of India’s election, after being told by a Ministry of External Affairs official that her visa extension would be denied because her reporting had “crossed a line,” according to multiple news reports.

“We were also told my election accreditation would not come through because of an Indian ministry directive,” Dias, who had been based in India since 2022, posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday.

Dias said that she was granted a two-month visa extension, following an Australian government intervention, less than 24 hours before her flight was due to leave.

In March, ABC broadcast a documentary by Dias on the June 2023 killing in Canada of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was a Canadian citizen. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” that India was involved in the Sikh leader’s shooting, which India dismissed as “absurd.”

After receiving a demand from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, YouTube blocked access in India to Dias’ report, as well as an ABC news segment about Australian national security agents meeting with Sikh activists in Australia regarding Nijjar’s death, ABC said.

“The case of ABC journalist Avani Dias is not an isolated incident. Foreign correspondents in India have faced increasing pressure and harassment from authorities, particularly when reporting on topics deemed unfavorable to the administration. Such actions not only infringe upon the rights of journalists but also deprive the public of access to important information and diverse perspectives,” said Kunāl Majumder, CPJ’s India representative.

“The Indian government must respect the fundamental principles of press freedom, refrain from retaliating against journalists for their reporting, and foster an environment for independent journalism. Visa regulations should not be used to censor or intimidate the media.”  

Late Tuesday, an unnamed government source told NDTV that Dias’ account of her departure was “not correct, misleading and mischievous.” The official was quoted as saying, “Dias was found to have violated visa rules while undertaking her professional pursuits,” without providing further details. 

Dias’ reports were blocked under India’s Information Technology Act, which was also used in March to block access on YouTube in India to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary featuring footage of Nijjar’s killing and in April to block prominent Hindi language news channels Bolta Hindustan and National Dastak without explanation.

In the last decade, journalists in India have faced an increasingly difficult environment, with critical websites censored, the departure of prominent editors, and independent outlets bought by politically-connected conglomerates, while divisive content has grown in popularity. India had the most video takedowns globally from October to December 2023, with over 2 million YouTube videos removed. 

From April 19 until June 1, Indians are voting in a general election, which the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been in power since 2014, is expected to win. Journalists told CPJ they were concerned about political violence, trolling, and device hacking.

Dias is the second foreign correspondent to leave India this year due to visa problems, following French journalist Vanessa Dougnac.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not immediately respond to CPJ’s email seeking comment on Dias’ departure.