What is the FM trying to hide?

The restrictions imposed recently on the entry of journalists into North Block, which houses the Union finance ministry in New Delhi, are a denial of the right to know, not only of journalists but also of all citizens. Journalists’ right to know is derived from and is part of the citizens’ right, and it is unfortunate that the government, and authorities everywhere and at levels, are tempted to slap unreasonable and unnecessary curbs on it. Accredited journalists have always had free access to the finance ministry. This was suspended for a few days during the preparation of the Budget, but the restrictions have since then been made a norm, imposed through a specific order. The finance ministry has not explained why it has chosen to deny the facility to journalists, except to say that it is meant to streamline the system. 

The ministry has said that there is no blanket ban, and that journalists can meet officials by appointment. But this is a limitation imposed on journalists who need access to places where decisions are made and to persons who take those decisions or frame policies. Such access is required to secure information, for confirmation of reports or for background information, all of which is part of the right to know. This is public activity undertaken in public interest. It is wrong to look at the right of entry of journalists into offices as a personal privilege granted to them. It facilitates their work and restrictions on it amount to restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Governments generally have the tendency to withhold information and are known to create hurdles to free expression of news and views in the media. The finance ministry’s curbs can only be seen as part of such a restrictive attitude and policy, now in overdrive. 

The ministry perhaps wants the media only to publish whatever information is given to it. That is an attempt to control the media and to discourage it from publishing information that may be embarrassing or uncomfortable to the government. The restriction is not just a measure directed at journalists. It is also directed at officials because the government will now be able to trace an inconvenient report by a journalist to the official who may have provided the information for that with the help of the record of appointments in the ministry. Journalists and their representative bodies have widely criticised the ministry’s order and termed it a gag on press freedom. It should be withdrawn immediately. Else, the people of India must conclude that the finance ministry has much to hide from them. Perhaps it is the news about the state of the economy.

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