'Times' Reporter Ordered To Leave Pakistan

Steve Inskeep talks to Declan Walsh, a correspondent with The New York Times, about his experience covering Pakistan for nearly a decade, and his ejection from the country over the weekend. The Pakistani government canceled Walsh's visa just as the campaign was ending.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Pakistan's election was the last news event covered by Declan Walsh before he was expelled from the country. The government cancelled the visa of the New York Times correspondent just as the campaign was ending. Declan Walsh is here to talk about the election and his experience. He's on the line now from London.

Welcome to the program.

DECLAN WALSH: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What a strange way to cover the end of the campaign, having received this notice from the government. Why did they expel you?

WALSH: I have no idea, really, Steve. All we know is from the letter that arrived at my house in Islamabad and - late Wednesday night, which was delivered by a number of policemen, signed by the Interior Ministry, and which cited, as they said, undesirable activities. Now, we spent the next couple of days making strenuous representations really at the highest levels of the Pakistan government to try and get a sense of what those undesirable activities were and, obviously, to address them; we wanted this decision overturned. But we didn't receive any official response. And so early Sunday morning, actually, as the election results were still coming in, I flew out of Pakistan.

INSKEEP: You were escorted out of the country, I understand.

WALSH: That's right. I was covering the polling and the results from the city of Lahore. That's where Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan - the two main figures in this election - are based. And then at one point in the late afternoon, I was stopped at a military check post, and then, through a series of events, ended up in a hotel in the center of the city, where the security services placed someone outside my door to ensure that I didn't leave my hotel room until I drove to the airport in the early hours of Sunday.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out what this says about Pakistan, because this is a country that has an increasingly free press. There is a very wide range of voices available. And yet at the same time, you hear of Pakistani journalists being killed. You hear of reporters being questioned or followed, and occasionally, you have a foreign reporter like you who's expelled.

WALSH: It certainly does seem very curious. Like you say, on the one hand, there's an incredible media vibrancy in Pakistan, particularly over the last six or seven years. The television media has come into its own right. And that has resulted in not only a sort of an important shift in the media culture of the country - because only a decade ago, there was just one state-controlled television channel. It's also fostered public debate, and there are a lot of sacred cows in the public arena, particularly in relation to both the military and to the government, that have been challenged. So there's a new openness and a vibrancy in the political debate, and in the national debate that we've seen. But at the same time, it's clear that there are very strong elements within the government, within the security services who maintain control over facets of the country. And they still, it seems, have the ability to crack down when things come out that they don't want to be publicly aired.

INSKEEP: Having covered this country for nine years, having watched this election that just took place, a second consecutive election since the last military government, does it feel to you like democracy, however imperfect, is taking root in Pakistan?

WALSH: It does. I think, you know, this election has been hugely encouraging for democracy in the country. And, obviously, it happened against a very dark backdrop. There was a very striking campaign of Taliban violence. The militants had stressed their determination to upend the democratic process. They targeted particularly three secular parties. Over 125 people were killed during the final month of campaigning.

So, the backdrop was dark, but on the other hand, the elections did go ahead in most parts of the country. There have been some complaints about irregularities. There have been some complaints about vote rigging. But on the whole, I suspect the Pakistanis will accept these election results. And it does signify the first time in the country's history that a civilian government has served its full five-year term and is now in the process of transferring power to another civilian government. So in a country that has seen so many military coups over its 66-year history, this is seen as a sign that Pakistani democracy is strengthening and solidifying. And that's got to be a good thing.

INSKEEP: Declan Walsh is a correspondent for the New York Times. He covered Pakistan for nine years and hopes to get a chance to do it again. Declan, thanks very much.

WALSH: Thank you, Steve.

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