Finance ministry’s decision to restrict access to journalists is effectively a ban

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Published: July 11, 2019 8:32:29 PM

Logging all meetings restricts a reporter’s ability to get sensitive news; the Finance Minister’s decision is effectively a ban.

Nirmala Sitharaman gestures as she speaks during a news conference in New Delhi. (Photo: Bloomberg)

It is not quite clear what the finance ministry meant when, in response to the outcry over its proposed restrictions on the entry of PIB-accredited journalists, it claimed that while no ban had been put in place, all that was being asked for was that journalists seek an appointment with officers; and once this is done, a PIB-accredited journalist will not require an additional pass to enter the ministry. That sounds reasonable, and in fact a lot of the criticism of the journalists’ protest has centered on this very issue: what makes journalists so special that they can just barge into the minister or a secretary’s room? This is missing the point and, to that extent, minimizing the impact of the ministry’s actions. Most PIB-accredited journalists – a privilege given only to journalists after a certain number of years in the profession – do not want to barge into the ministry to buttonhole the minister or bureaucrats unannounced; that does happen, but that is something that can be handled by laying down ground rules that everyone agrees with.

The purpose of the PIB card is to protect sources. If the minister or top bureaucrats know whom journalists are meeting in the ministry, it becomes quite easy to track where information for a story came from and, once that is done, clamping down on information leaks is easy. But since an accredited journalist does not, at the time of entering the ministry, give the names of officials she is meeting, the meeting remains relatively below the radar. Once a meeting is logged, as the ministry seems to be wanting now, this cloak of anonymity goes; along with that, information sources dry up too with most bureaucrats with any kind of sensitive information becoming wary of meeting. In most ministries, officials below a certain rank – often the ones with the most information – are not allowed to meet the media; the PIB accreditation gets over that hurdle.

Line ministers or bureaucrats are, understandably keen to block any source of information that makes them look bad. Indeed, in the current context, the government was unwilling to release the latest labour survey results since it showed unemployment had risen even as the government was saying lots of jobs were being created; given that elections were around the corner, the report was particularly sensitive. Had a finance-ministry-type diktat been in place in other ministries/departments, and were the Business Standard reporter who scooped the report forced to reveal the names of people whom he was meeting, chances are the report would have remained buried. Similarly, when prime minister Manmohan Singh was allowing telecom minister A Raja to give out licenses for a song, his government would have been keen that his correspondence with Raja – and notings about Raja’s actions – were kept secret; the fact that they were not due to enterprising reporters only helped increase transparency in the system. It is for this reason that, the way the system evolved, there was a legitimate space for journalists – RTI is another attempt to create another such avenue – to get information in the public interest. Given how the BJP benefitted so much from information about UPA-era scams leaking out, and how it prides itself on being a government with a difference, it is especially unfortunate that it is now being seen as trying to block information flows. The finance minister is right to want to prevent journalists from hounding officials, but it needs to work on a more reasonable solution.

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