Declan Walsh, the New York Times Islamabad bureau chief, was ordered to leave Pakistan shortly before national elections, the newspaper reported Friday, and the move drew immediate criticism from press-freedom advocates.
On Thursday at 12:30 a.m. local time, officers from Pakistan’s Interior Ministry arrived at Walsh’s home with a two-sentence letter informing him his visa was revoked. He is being forced to leave the country within 72 hours.
“It is informed that your visa is hereby canceled in view of your undesirable activities,” the order stated. “You are therefore advised to leave the country within 72 hours.” The timing of the order means Walsh must exit Pakistan on the night of the elections.
Jill Abramson, the newspaper’s executive editor, sent a letter of protest to Interior Minister Malik Muhammad Habib Khan, in which she described Walsh as a “reporter of integrity who has at all times offered balanced, nuanced and factual reporting on Pakistan.” Abramson requested that the minister reinstate Walsh’s visa.
She also said Walsh had received no explanation of any alleged wrongdoing.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, urged the interim government in Pakistan to reverse its decision in a statement posted on its website Friday evening.
“The expulsion of Declan Walsh shows just how much the authorities fear independent media coverage,” Bob Dietz, the New York-based group’s Asia program coordinator, said in the statement. “The vagueness and the late night delivery of the expulsion order smack of a need to intimidate foreign and local journalists on the eve of historic elections that could herald the growth of democracy in Pakistan. Instead, Walsh’s expulsion only mars the event, and undercuts hopes for a free press.”
Walsh has lived and reported in Pakistan for nine years, first for the Guardian in the U.K. He was hired by the Times in January of last year.
On Thursday, Walsh was out with friends when he received a call from an unknown phone number, advising him to “come home now,” the Times said.
When he arrived, a half-dozen police officers and one plainclothes officer were waiting outside his home. He was handed a letter and asked to sign for it.
“I opened the letter in front of him because I knew it was something serious,” Walsh told his employer. “This was a complete bolt from the blue. I had no inclination that anything of this sort was coming.”
Pakistan’s poor history of press freedom is well documented.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris- and Washington-based advocacy group, ranked the embattled South Asian country No. 159 on its 2013 press freedom index. That was down eight positions from the year before.
The group did not immediately respond to calls and emails from International Business Times requesting comment.
CPJ pointed out that authorities have “failed to prosecute a single suspect in the 23 journalist murders over the past decade.” The group is planning to publish a report on the state of media freedom in the country this month.
Pakistanis head to the polls on Saturday, the first time in the country’s history that a government completes its term and ushers in elections for a new parliament.