Perhaps, the Hon’ble Minister Nirmala Sitharaman thinks that freedom is also like the briefcase-carrying budget papers that she discarded this year—a “colonial hangover.”
Liberty is an orphan, whereas despotism has a thousand fathers. And not just fathers but also mothers and aunties, sisters and Big Sisters. The recent one to join the illiberal club is Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Her Ministry has practically barred journalists’ entry to North Block which houses much of its offices. Now even those with Press Information Bureau (PIB) accredited cards will have to seek an appointment to enter the Ministry premises.
This is a blatant attack on press freedom. The idea of accreditation by the PIB, which is under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, is that experienced journalists are allowed smooth movement in government offices. They need not bother about passes, which are issued by reception officers.
With the Finance Ministry too becoming inaccessible, almost the entire Raisina Hill—where the most important organs of government are housed—gets out of the reach of journalists.
PIB cards are issued to reporters in the employ of media organizations with a minimum experience of five years and freelance journalists with a minimum experience of 15 years. It needs to be noted that the cards are issued only after a full-fledged security check carried out by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Residence of the journalist is verified by the local police.
But Big Sister Sitharaman didn’t want any newshounds around her ministry. As it is, newshounds are a species on the verge of extinction, with the government having, directly and indirectly, cowed (no pun intended) into submission the mainstream media. But she doesn’t want to take any chances.
Condemning the FinMin move, Editors Guild of India called it “arbitrary.” It correctly said, “This order is a gag on media freedoms and can even result to a further fall in India’s global press freedom rankings, especially as the contagion can easily spread to other ministries as well. If the finance minister believes that journalists’ access to government offices was causing some inconveniences, the system could be improved in discussions with journalists.”
By the way, India ranks 140 in the 180-country World Press Freedom Index 2019, having fallen two notches in a year.
The Guild urged Sitharaman “to reconsider her decision and withdraw it.”
Seems unlikely, as she is convinced of the correctness of her order. She issued a clarification saying, “Entry of media persons, including those holding PIB accredited card, will be on the basis of a prior appointment. No other restrictions have been imposed on their entry inside MoF, North Block.”
Further, it said, “Media persons holding a PIB card will not require a separate entry pass after the appointment is fixed.” These procedures are part of overall efforts being made by the ministry to make reporting for media persons hassle-free and convenient, the clarification added.
This balderdash, pure and simple. The new order has been issued to make it evident to the officers in the Ministry that the Big Sister knows whom they are talking to. This will prevent them from giving any information to the media that the government is not comfortable with.
To be fair to the Narendra Modi government, we should remember that he did not begin putting restrictions on the media in terms of access. Writing for Firstpost, Praveen Swami wrote (Jul 12), “Many key ministries have long disallowed journalists from wandering the corridors of power. Lalit Mansingh, foreign secretary in 1999-2000, ended the pleasant practice of journalists wandering around South Block… Shivshankar Menon, foreign secretary from 2006–2009, tightened restrictions further.”
He added, “The defence ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, and other premises connected to national security have always been off-limits for entry without an appointment, even to journalists security-cleared by the government’s Press Information Bureau.” Lady Liberty has been molested before.
With the Finance Ministry too becoming inaccessible, almost the entire Raisina Hill—where the most important organs of government are housed—gets out of the reach of journalists. The contagion may spread to other ministries and government offices; state governments may follow suit.
Remember the iconic painting, ‘Liberty Leading the People’, by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 which toppled King Charles X of France? Big Sister Sitharaman doesn’t like liberty lead the people of India. Neither does she see Lady Liberty as a damsel in distress.
Perhaps, the Hon’ble Minister thinks that freedom is also like the briefcase-carrying budget papers that she discarded this year—a “colonial hangover.”
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.