The Finance Ministry has put in place restrictions on the entry of media persons into North Block, allowing access to only those accredited journalists who have a prior appointment with an official.
A statement issued by the office of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said there is no ban on the entry of journalists and that it’s just that a procedure has been put in place for “streamlining and facilitating” the entry of journalists inside the ministry.
As per custom, North Block, where the Finance Ministry operates from, has only been out of bounds for journalists during the pre-budget quarantine period for about two months.
However, even after the presentation of the 2019-20 Budget, journalists (even the PIB-accredited ones) found they aren’t being allowed inside.
The officers of Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which guards the Ministry, letting them in only if a Finance Ministry official sends a written note with the name(s) of the media person to them for the purpose of entry, according to PTI.
After multiple journalists protested the de facto ban, Sitharaman tweeted a clarification on Tuesday night, saying that the move was in line with a request from journalists for a “separate waiting room to make their reporting hassle free and convenient”. This room, she added, would be air-conditioned, with comfortable seats, and tea, coffee and water would be provided at regular intervals.
Senior journalists, including editors of various media organisations, had sought time for a meeting with the Finance Minister to raise their concerns, but the meeting took place outside the Finance Ministry building.
Multiple journalists pointed out on Twitter that the restrictions will hamper their daily work, and ensure that they are only able to repeat information handed out by the government.
An India Today report quoted a journalist as saying,“Officials meet reporters on an informal basis. If an appointment-must-for-meeting rule is enforced none of the officials would like to meet reporters as it would expose their identity.”
The Editors Guild of India condemned the ministry’s decision and said the order is a gag on media freedoms and can even result in a further fall in India’s global press freedom rankings. The Guild said that journalists do not go to government offices to enjoy the comforts and hospitality of visitors’ rooms designated for them. “They go to perform their challenging job of news gathering.”
The new rules are in line with the strict media management strategy the Narendra Modi regime has followed since its first term. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in 2015, had asked its leaders to steer clear of controversies and not make any provocative statement in Parliament.
Later, in 2018, Modi had also warned netas to stop giving “masala” to media. “We commit mistakes and give masala to media. The moment we see a cameraperson, we jump to make a statement as if we are great social scientists or intellectuals. Then these ill-informed statements are used by media and the party’s image takes a beating. It is not the media’s fault,” the prime minister said, according to The Indian Express.
Swati Chaturvedi, in January 2018, had pointed out in a piece for The Wire how “Modi has ensured that his ministers are either hostile, like (then) Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani, who cultivates a constituency of trolls on social media, or terrified to meet the press.”
She also said that the earlier practice of PIB accredited corespondents getting free and unfettered access to ministries is under threat. Journalists with even a PIB card are expected to disclose which office they were meeting and the official was subsequently subjected to hostile questioning, Chaturvedi added.
Modi himself has often been criticised for not holding a single press conference during his tenure, preferring instead to either air his thoughts on the radio show ‘Mann Ki Baat’ or grant “exclusive” interviews that the opposition has called “fixed”. Just as his first term was winding down, he did appear at a press conference led by then BJP president Amit Shah, but did not answer a single question.
(With PTI inputs)