Time article triggers flap over press freedom in India

A British reporter may be expelled after questioning Vajpayee's ability to control India's nuclear arsenal.

As the subject of an unflattering magazine article about his health, India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had several choices: ignore it, send a letter to the editor to correct it, or make sure the man who wrote it never works in this town again.

A week after an article by Time magazine's Alex Perry appeared, alleging that the Indian prime minister who led his country during the tense nuclear standoff with Pakistan over the past few months is in very poor health, Indian immigration officials began delving into Mr. Perry's past visa applications.

The story on Mr. Vajpayee was particularly inflammatory because it also questioned the his ability to control India's nuclear weapons.

What the investigators found – according to Indian immigration sources – was that Perry holds two British passports, and that his visa applications contained irregularities, including a self-description as a teacher, rather than a journalist.

Though the investigation is still continuing, the evidence is enough for Indian immigration officials to order Perry to leave the country, perhaps permanently.

Some Indian political observers say it's all part of a pattern of harassment of news organizations that make the powerful look weak, foolish, or corrupt. The harassment has resulted in a kind of self-censorship by the usually boisterous press. No Indian paper has taken on the issue of Vajpayee's health as directly as did Perry.

"In so many ways, it is just like Mrs. Indira Gandhi," says Kuldip Nayar, a longtime journalist, former Indian High Commissioner to Britain, and current member of India's upper house of Parliament. Mrs. Gandhi, one of India's most powerful prime ministers, arrested journalists and politicians who disagreed with her during a state of emergency she called from 1975 to 1977.

"The criticism of the government has increased, especially since Gujarat," Mr. Nayar says, referring to the communal riots that have killed more than 1,000 Indians, mostly Muslims, since Feb. 27 in the state of Gujarat.

The irony, he adds, is that "the very people who are doing all this to the press are those who suffered in the emergency themselves."

During Gandhi's state of emergency, most of the current leadership, including Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani, and hundreds of journalists, such as Nayar, were put in prison for months without trial. Four foreign journalists, including the BBC's Mark Tully, were expelled from the country.

While no one feels that the current government's actions come close to those of Gandhi's, Perry, a British citizen, is among several recent cases of journalists encountering time-consuming interrogation and the threat of shutdown or expulsion.

• Last spring, after the Tehelka.com news service published excerpts of videotapes that showed high-level Indian Defense Ministry officials taking bribes, including sexual favors from prostitutes, Indian government officials at first acknowledged the investigation's findings and promised to take action. But then, officials from numerous agencies, including tax authorities, launched their own investigations of Tehelka.com. Ministry of Defense officials attacked the online news service's credibility in the press, disclosing that reporters used prostitutes to lure defense officials into the sting.

• Last summer, after a series of highly critical articles about the hard-line pro-Hindu policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), auditors of the Income Tax Department launched an investigation into the books of the liberal Outlook magazine and its editor.

• In February and March, after the privately owned NDTV 24-hour news service broadcast video of communal riots in Gujarat, top Indian officials counterattacked, alleging that the broadcasts themselves were fanning the flames of hatred.

The government's quarrel with Perry's article, headlined "Asleep at the Wheel," appears to focus on one paragraph: "India's leader (Vajpayee) takes painkillers for his knees (which were replaced due to arthritis); has trouble with his bladder, liver, and his one remaining kidney; takes a three-hour snooze every afternoon on doctor's orders; and is given to interminable silences, indecipherable ramblings and, not infrequently, falling asleep in meetings."

The report, including the questions surrounding Vajpayee's ability to control the nuclear arsenal, sparked a chain of events, including a tart letter from the Prime Minister's Office to Time magazine, stating: "Mr. Vajpayee has been in command for more than four years and his ability to control the country's nuclear capability has never been questioned."

Perry stands by his story and says the main source is "somebody very close to the prime minister."

The article set off a wave of small street protests, such as the burning of Time Magazines by members of the ruling BJP in the western city of Pune last week. It also set off a series of pro-Vajpayee editorials from papers sympathetic to the BJP line. One newspaper, the right-leaning Pioneer, printed Perry's residential address, prompting Time magazine to hire armed guards.

Indian officials are now investigating Perry's two British passports, especially the one listing his occupation as "teacher." According to documents obtained by the Monitor, it is clear that Perry does have two passports, but the second one was issued after the first one ran out of pages. The second passport, which is actually an additional booklet, was issued in New Delhi just days before Perry left to cover the American-led war in Afghanistan.

"Here he had mentioned his occupation as a teacher because it was safer this way to travel to Afghanistan and raise no suspicions," says his lawyer, Lalit Bhasin. The lawyer added that Perry is actively involved in educational activities such as delivering lectures and talks. "So what is wrong if he mentioned his occupation as a teacher?" Mr. Bhasin says: "He has committed no offense and there can be no legal action or arrest."

One highly placed Indian government official who requests anonymity says that Perry's "irregularities escaped the notice of visa officials, but now that this has come out, they are looking at his papers more closely."

"This is not a matter of press freedom; we have plenty of that," says the official. "This article just hits a little too close to the bone.... We are Orientals in the sense that face or dignity is important and that must be preserved. We may talk about someone's health in the Delhi gossip circuit, but to do so openly, and about the prime minister ... seems insensitive."

Yet those who know Vajpayee acknowledge that he is in "indifferent health."

"We need in the job of prime minister a man whose alertness is not in question," says Saeed Naqvi, a senior columnist for the Indian Express with close contacts to Vajpayee. "In the television era, we have a prime minister who is not telegenic. These Churchillian pauses – that was always part of Vajpayee's style, a man who thinks as he speaks. But now they are beginning to look like 40 winks."

As Perry's interrogation by immigration officials entered their third day today, Indian political observers and legal experts slammed the government's treatment of the press. "This whole tendency of the government to harass journalists, it suggests an immaturity in our leadership, that the civilization that survived three millennia of invasions from outside forces could be brought down by one article," says Tarun Tejpal, founder of Tehelka.com, which is New Delhi-based and specializes in investigative journalism. After what it calls months of harassment and character assassination by Indian officials, Tehelka will be cutting its staff of 20 to five and looking for new investors.

Not all critics of the current administration say that the recent government treatment of individual reporters or organizations equals a pattern of harassment.

"As a generalization, to say that anybody who writes anything bad about the government is going to get harassed is not borne out by the facts," says George Verghese, a veteran political observer in New Delhi. "Wait for the outcome of the case."

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