By Mohammed Naushad Khan

The Editors Guild of India has written to the chairman of the Press Information Bureau (PIB), urging him to reverse the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s February 7 announcement of new accreditation guidelines. Many clauses allowing a journalist’s accreditation to be revoked, according to the Guild, are “arbitrary and without due process of law.”

The letter said: “We are surprised that the new guidelines have been issued without any consultations with press organisations and media bodies. As a result, the guidelines fail to offer clarity and streamlining, and instead impose unilateral, onerous and arbitrary conditions upon journalists. Under the guidelines, journalists will come under the thumb of the police, and this will have a chilling impact on reporting and weaken the independence of the press media.”

Gautum Lahiri, senior journalist and former president of Press Club of India (PCI), while sharing his perspective on the new accreditation guidelines, said, “The new guidelines for media accreditation reminds old days when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wanted to bring Defamation Bill. The government was criticised by media everyday on corruption issue. To muzzle media, the then government tried to threaten with draconian law. The new guidelines for media imposed by the present government are almost on the same premises. Unfortunately, today media is not united. During 80’s the media protested unitedly and the government had to withdraw. Today same media are not vocal on this issue. Rather they are silent now.” 

The former PCI President said, “We are not opposed to taking actions against media personnel if he or she violates law of the land. If the government finds anything wrong, they can refer the case to law enforcing agencies. And to ombudsman, like Press Council of India or Broadcasting Association. The Government should not be prosecutor and judge both. Moreover, the guidelines should be formulated, taking into confidence all stakeholders. Unilateral imposition creates suspicion. And media will be always under threat, thereby dilutes the very essence of freedom of expression. It will give a bad reputation of Indian democracy across the globe.”

Another senior Journalist, Seema Chishti, who has worked for BBC India and BBC World Service and as a senior editor with The Indian Express, said, “The revised Central Media Accreditation Guidelines, 2022, issued on February 7th, mark a crucial turning point in India’s media-government relationship. The Press Information Bureau’s (PIB) “accreditation” procedure entails the state applying a set of criteria to choose a group of journalists who will be permitted access to government offices and events. This has resulted in a diverse range and number of journalists of various hues and tones over the years.”

She added, “However, the most recent set of guidelines empowers a committee of government officials to revoke or suspend accreditation on the basis of major red flags about the types of journalists who would be allowed to operate and provide access to elected officials and top bureaucrats. It creates a barrier, conveys a message to employers, and makes journalists’ jobs difficult. The de facto selection procedure sends a strong message about who the government considers to be a journalist.”

John Dayal, noted social and human rights activist as well as a senior journalist, while sharing his own personal accreditation experience, said, “I have been accredited as a correspondent to the Government of India, and before that to the Delhi government, for over 45 years, and am also the holder of a media card from both Houses of Parliament. We have all been clear on many points. It is the prerogative of the governments to issue a card, and while those of us who are in Delhi are entitled to a PIB accreditation; those working away from the national capital are denied this facility irrespective of their seniority, or the size of the newspapers or agencies.”

He added, “Quite clearly, holding a PIB card does not reflect on the quality or professionalism of our work. Many journalists who do not have such a card for various reasons, including those who they work for monthlies or are relatively new to the profession, often do a much better job as investigative journalists than do old journalists who may have held such a card for decades. With the advent of social media and the internet, now everyone has the same access to news transmitted by the governments and its agencies, by the corporate sector and other institutions. A PIB card does not make it any easier.”

On the present day utility of accreditation card, Dayal said, “The PIB Press card helps the most in gaining access to the various government offices. Till a decade ago, it could also help gain access even to the offices of the Prime minister, the Defence Minister, and the President of India. It does not any longer, and they require separate invitations. The PIB card is also no help with the Supreme Court which has its own system.  Recent years have also seen the government impose restrictions, not perhaps on the media, but on its officers barring all of them from speaking with the press. While a reporter may just miss a story, the government officer may lose his job.

“We, as editors and reporters, also accept the fact that there will be a police enquiry. We also accept this when we apply for passports. In the past, the police came to our homes to find out if we lived at the address that we had mentioned in the application forms. Sometimes, and with much hesitation, they would also ask if we had been convicted of any crimes. Taking part in protests for higher salaries, or against press censorship, was not counted as a crime,” he said.

On the new guidelines and the area of concern, he said, “The new guidelines have added many other factors which have quaint or hazy definitions, and which cannot be quantified. The Editors Guild of India – I was treasurer twenty-five years ago and am currently on the executive committee – correctly says these provisions “are vague, arbitrary, draconian, and will be restrictive against critical and investigative reporting of government affairs”. The Guild, together with the Press Club of India, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and many other media organisations have also protested to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, urging it to withdraw the guidelines.”

Dayal argued, “Prima facie, it will lead to the making of a political and partisan value-judgment in the writings of a scribe. Will reporting on the internet disruptions in Kashmir constitute anti-national journalism? Will reporting religious and ethnic minorities and their protests be also deemed so? Reporting, and commenting, on the work of economic miniseries is no less fraught than covering the PMO, Defence and Home ministries. Ministers, politicians, and bureaucrats can take umbrage and feel the reporter has been working against the reputation of the country in giving data and facts in his or her stories.”

On the freedom of media, he said, “India currently rates low on all its social and development indices, and on press freedom. That means that even covering the situation with any comment or explanation will show India in a poor light, and therefore go against the mood of the new regulations. Anti-national activities should be such as a conspiracy to murder or to plant bombs, precipitate violence and take part in conspiracies leading to violence against people and the government. Criticising the government, supporting women, students, and peoples’ movements of Dalits and Tribals is not anti-national. In fact, this reportage is very pro-national and patriotic as it helps the government take remedial action as its own officers are not giving it this vital information.”

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