New Delhi, April 2 (IANS) SAARC foreign ministers Monday assured South Asian journalists that restrictions on their travel in the region and free movement of media products would soon be removed.
"We have decided to remove restrictions before the next meeting of the council of ministers," External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who took over as chair of the SAARC council of ministers, told journalists at a meeting organised by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA).
"When you meet next, you will not have much to complain about," Mukherjee said.
"India will also unilaterally liberalise the visa process so that journalists can travel freely in the region," the minister said.
If ministers of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) stick to their promise, a relatively easier visa regime would be possible next year, which has been designated as the year of the media by the grouping of South Asian countries. Journalists have, however, taken this assurance with a pinch of salt.
The issue of free movement of journalists was discussed at the daylong meeting of the council of ministers Monday.
A day before the two-day SAARC summit starts here, Mukherjee spoke about the need to step up connectivity - physical, economic and mental - in the region and underlined the need to seize this "collective opportunity" to make a "quantum jump" in economic development of their respective countries.
If this century has to be an Asian century, this has to be the decade of the SAARC, the minister stressed.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri lauded SAFMA for promoting "better understanding" in the region and promised to work with India to enable freer movement of journalists. "I will endeavour to work with the current chair (India) to the best of my ability for this," said Kasuri.
"We hope we will be able to achieve this," Kasuri said.
Bangladesh foreign advisor in the interim administration Iftekar Ahmed Chowdhury backed the demand for a freer travel regime and underlined the need for promoting SAARC as an instrument of development.
The SAFMA, which concluded its two-day conclave Monday, has listed a slew of demands in a resolution entitled New Delhi Declaration. It has demanded that 50 journalists from the mainstream media of each country be given a SAARC sticker by governments for free travel in the region.
Cumbersome procedures of intelligence clearance for visa as prevalent in some countries should be waived immediately, it demanded.
Six journalists each from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh should be allowed to regularly report from each country, the SAFMA has demanded.
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta called for freedom of the media and greater coordination among journalists to fight the scourge of terrorism. "Fighting terrorism needs more cooperation among countries of the region. This won't be possible without the support of a free press," Spanta said.
Nepalese Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan - the only woman to hold this crucial portfolio in the region presently - lauded the Nepalese media for playing a crucial role in bringing about democratic change in her country. "Media has an important role in narrowing perceptions among countries of the region," she said.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama spoke about the need for free flow of thoughts and backed unhindered access of journalists in the region.
Supporting a free movement of journalists, Maldives Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed called for more open dialogue at various levels. "We should make SAARC a people's movement," he said.