Condemning the decision of the Ministry of Finance to restrict access of government-accredited journalists to its North Block offices to only those who have prior appointments, the Editors Guild of India Wednesday called it “arbitrary… a gag on media freedoms” and sought its withdrawal.
In a statement Wednesday, the Guild said it “has no dispute with the ministry that journalists should behave with restraint and responsibility while enjoying their access to the finance ministry” but “a blanket order is not the answer”.
It said: “Journalists do not go to government offices to enjoy the comforts and hospitality of visitors’ rooms designated for them. They go to perform their challenging job of news gathering. This order is a gag on media freedoms and can even result in 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. The Guild urges the finance minister, Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, to reconsider her decision and withdraw it,” it said.
The Indian Women Press Corps, Press Association and the Press Club of India also issued a joint statement saying the Ministry decision is “not only arbitrary but also hampers the freedom of press”. The three bodies said that “news and information gathering is the fundamental duty of a journalist and the decision of the ministry to restrict journalists from accessing information totally goes against it and this means that the journalists are being prevented from doing their fundamental as well as professional duty”.
Their statement said they “want to bring to the notice of the government that not all journalists are byte collectors but several of them do lot of informed writing”. They urged the government to “immediately revoke this ban on the free movement of journalists and allow them easy access to information for journalistic work as has been the practice since long”.
The Ministry has restricted the entry of even government-accredited journalists unless they have prior appointments.
The restriction is placed ahead of the Budget as the Ministry is under quarantine to maintain secrecy, but such restrictions are lifted on the first working day after the Budget is presented.
On Tuesday, Sitharaman’s office tweeted a statement saying “entry of media persons, including those holding PIB accredited card, will be on the basis of prior appointment” and “no other restrictions have been imposed on their entry inside MoF, North Block”.
It said media persons “can seek appointment with the officer/s to meet them”. Media persons “holding a PIB card will not require a separate entry pass after the appointment is fixed,” the statement said, adding that these “procedures are part of overall efforts being made by the ministry to make reporting for media persons hassle free and convenient”. The statement also said “no ban is in place”.