Updated: February 10, 2022 11:31:46 am
The government has issued a new policy on accreditation of journalists, introducing an entire section about reasons that can result in the suspension of the accreditation.
What has changed?
The new policy, prepared by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) and issued by the Press Information Bureau, lays down guidelines on how PIB accreditation will be granted to eligible journalists. At the moment there are 2,457 PIB-accredited journalists in the country.
For the first time, it specifies conditions that can result in the journalist losing accreditation. If a journalist “acts in manner which is prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement of an offence”, her accreditation can be cancelled.
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The previous policy, issued in 2013, had stated, under general terms of accreditation, that accreditation “shall be withdrawn as soon as the conditions on which it was given cease to exist. Accreditation is also liable to be withdrawn/suspended if it is found to have been misused”.
The new policy has ten points that may result in the accreditation being cancelled, including if a journalist is charged with a “serious cognisable offence”.
What concerns does this raise?
One of the core responsibilities of a journalist is to expose wrongdoing, whether by public officials, politicians, big businessmen, corporate groups, or other people in power. This could result, at times, in such powers trying to intimidate journalists or to block information from coming out.
A common tool used by powerful people is filing of defamation cases against journalists and media platforms. Now, defamation has been made one of the provisions that can lead to cancellation of accreditation.
Journalists often report on issues and policy decisions that the government may not like. The new policy’s provision about acting “in manner which is prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality” or “incitement of an offence” can be subjective. The policy is silent on who will decide if a journalist’s conduct violates any of these conditions. Any investigative story on sensitive issues could be held to be in violation of any of these provisions.
Who is eligible for accreditation?
There are multiple categories. But a journalist needs to have a minimum five years’ professional experience as a full-time working journalist or a cameraperson in a news organisation, or a minimum of 15 years as a freelancer to become eligible. Veteran journalists, with over 30 years of experience, and who are older than 65 years of age, too are eligible.
Accreditation is only available for journalists living in the Delhi NCR region.
A newspaper or a periodical needs to have a minimum daily circulation of 10,000, and news agencies must have at least 100 subscribers. Similar rules apply for foreign news organisations and foreign journalists. The policy has introduced a provision that journalists working with digital news platforms are also eligible, provided the website has a minimum of 10 lakh unique visitors per month.
Applications for accreditation are vetted by a Central Press Accreditation Committee headed by the DG, PIB. After a journalist applies, a mandatory security check is conducted by the Home Ministry, which includes police verification of the journalist’s residence.
How does accreditation help?
The policy mentions that the accreditation does not “confer any official or special status” on the journalists, but only recognises them as a “professional working journalist”.
There are three advantages. One, in certain events where VVIPs or dignitaries such as the President, the Vice President or the Prime Minister are present, only accredited journalists are allowed to report from the premises. Second, accreditation ensures that a journalist is able to protect the identity of his or her sources. An accredited journalist does not have to disclose who he or she intends to meet when entering offices of union ministries, as the accreditation card is “valid for entry into buildings under MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) security zone”.
Third, accreditation brings certain benefits for the journalist and his or her family, like being included in the Central Government Health Scheme, and some concessions on railway tickets.
Have governments tried to put similar curbs earlier?
Several governments have tried, but have had to usually withdraw.
In 2018, during its first term, the NDA government introduced Fake News Guidelines, proposing that a journalist’s accreditation can be suspended and even permanently cancelled, if media regulatory bodies adjudge that the journalist had propagated fake news. The order was withdrawn.
In 2017, the Rajasthan government brought in a Bill to protect state officials from “scurrilous and non-substantiable charges”. It entailed a jail term for a maximum of two years and a fine. The Bill was withdrawn.
In 2012, during the UPA regime, Congress leader Meenakshi Natarajan wanted to introduce a Private Member’s Bill in Lok Sabha, which proposed setting up a media regulatory authority with powers to ban or suspend coverage of an event or incident that “may pose a threat to national security from foreign or internal sources”. Eventually Natarajan did not introduce the Bill, and her party too distanced itself from it.
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose government was rocked by corruption allegations, had proposed a defamation Bill in 1988, which would “make publication of imputations falsely alleging commission of offences by any person as an offence.” The Bill, eventually withdrawn, proposed a jail term of up to five years for defamation.
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