New Modi govt back to old media regulation ways

New Modi govt back to old media regulation ways

On Monday, July 8, Nirmala Sitharaman informed journalists of restrictions on their entry into North Block. (PTI File Photo)

Traditionally, on the first working day after the Union Budget is presented in Parliament, corridors of the finance ministry depict a relaxed look. Visitors' curbs, imposed during the weeks prior to the B-Day, are lifted. No member of the staff is placed in 'quarantine', the name of specially chosen rooms where officials work and live with no contact with the outside world. And most importantly, journalists, especially PIB accredited financial scribes, for whom the finance ministry was previously out of bounds, find they can once again saunter in and out and drop in for a cuppa with a friendly official or two for background briefings or just to discuss a few questions that may have arisen post the Budget presentation.

On Monday, July 8, the first working day after Nirmala Sitharaman became the first full-time woman finance minister to present the Union Budget, journalists – chiefly beat reporters – who made a beeline for the ministry were in for a rude shock. They were informed at the gate that entry restrictions, put in place prior to the Budget, would continue on a permanent basis and hereafter even accredited correspondents would have to secure prior appointments with specific officers and only thereafter would they be allowed. Even this would be permitted only after making an entry in an earmarked register. There was no necessity for anyone to guess that this record would be scrutinised by specially designated officials who would provide regular feedback to the political masters about which journalist was being granted an audience and by which officer.

Predictably, beat reporters objected and staged a protest. But, the finance ministry officially stated that there was no ban on the entry of media persons but that a "procedure has been put in place for facilitating and streamlining the entry." The Editors' Guild too objected and in a statement stated that the order was "arbitrary" and was a "gag on media freedoms". The Guild also expressed fear that the "contagion can easily spread to other ministries as well." Other media bodies, including the Indian Women's Press Corps and the Press Club of India, also deplored the finance ministry's directive. Despite this, there has been no rollback.

Amid the directive and protests against it, came the annual finance ministry dinner, at a plush hotel as usual, and beat reporters decided to boycott it. Yet, the party was held on July 12 with almost 40 senior editors, television anchors and senior reporters and heads of news bureau of several publications, channels and wire agencies in attendance. Although the majority of the invitees stayed out, the attendees included most frontline English newspapers with the possible exception of the Hindu group.

Those who stayed away were of the view that the ministry's order would impede their work because officials would hereafter become reticent to meet them if interactions are part of the formal record. Despite this, sections of the media broke ranks with colleagues arguing their papers had adequately reported the order and papers such as DH and Indian Express even had editorials on it asking Sitharaman to withdraw her decision. The division in the fourth estate is not the moot issue. Rather, the decision has to be evaluated within the framework of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime's past relationship with the media and their overall attitude towards unregulated media functioning.

It must be recalled that Prime Minister Narendra Modi stirred a significant controversy immediately after becoming the premier in 2014 by discontinuing the practice of taking along a media team with him on his tours to other countries. The finance ministry's decision must also be seen in the context of the government's unstated policy of not holding regular press conferences with either the prime minister or senior ministers. The only exception to this are regular government briefings where just a few superficial questions pertaining to the immediate subject are allowed.

There is an insightful media story dating to the weeks immediately after Modi was appointed Gujarat chief minister in October 2001. Here too the jettisoned item was a 'tradition.' It was started in the mid-1990s possibly during Keshubhai Patel's tenure and Ahmedabad-based journalists who reported on the state government (barring those from outside the state, most Gujarati scribes lived in private houses in the bigger of the twin cities) were facilitated to travel to Gandhinagar and back every day. A government bus would depart from Ahmedabad at an appointed time and drop the journalists close to the secretariat building and every evening be stationed at a designated spot at a specific time to bring the reporters back who would then head to their workplace or residence. 

Within weeks of assuming charge as CM, Modi dispensed with this facility. It set the template for his relationship with the media and after the 2002 riots, he perfected the art of playing the victim. The narrative of 2014 elections saw Modi making a villain out of the media, especially the Delhi-based English press, for their criticism of the riots and subsequent allegations of extra-judicial killings and promotion of prejudice against religious minorities. Modi's dislike of the media was matched by several of his ministers. Smriti Irani shortly after her induction took on the media for acting as the "judge and jury" and was generally disdainful of the media and journalists, although a different attitude was reserved, as by her boss as well, for handpicked favourites. 

Sitharaman's order is thereby consistent with the government's attempts to belittle the role of the media and work through the new media channels which have been opened since 2014 – Mann Ki Baat and social media. Access is provided to just a handful faithful, proving that compliance is a necessity for interaction. The finance ministry order seeks to ensure that communication with the majority in the media one-way traffic and journalists are called for briefings where they can do little but act either as stenographers or collect the handout. Discerning and interpretative reports and analysis which are also exclusive are frowned upon because this government wishes to operate within a veil of secrecy. Any interpretation besides it is not acceptable. The finance ministry order is also an effort to regulate the behaviour of 'heretic' officers who may otherwise talk to chosen reporters. It is no secret that 'leaks' of information and documents are often at the root of several explosive journalistic efforts which rock governments. 

Globally, Modi is not the only leader who presides over a regime with a dislike for the media. The Trump administration's animosity for and constant run-ins with journalists are well-documented. In India, however, as the finance minister's dinner indicated, the pressure on journalists is possibly greater. 

As the Editors' Guild reminded, India is not at a high position in the global press freedom index – 140th position in a list featuring 180 countries.  The finance ministry's regulatory order could trigger further fall by a few positions. From the belief that news was something that someone, somewhere wished to hide, we are being ushered into an era when the news is all about what, how much and when the government is willing to disclose. The rest of it, as they say, is anti-national propaganda. 

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also writtenNarendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.