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India among few nations giving free government office access to reporters

On Tuesday, the Union finance ministry announced journalists will be allowed entry into the North Block office only after an appointment.

india Updated: Jul 12, 2019 18:29 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, New Delhi/Washington/London
finance ministry,India,government office
Union finance ministry had announced that journalists will be allowed entry into the North Block office only after an appointment.(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

India may be among the few countries that allow recognised journalists special access to government buildings, as compared to other prominent democracies where the terms of a reporter’s entry into a government facility are often at par with those of a general citizen’s.

The Indian practice has been in focus since Tuesday, when the Union finance ministry said journalists will be allowed entry into North Block offices only after an appointment. The decision triggered anger, most prominently from the Editors Guild of India that called it “arbitrary” and “a gag on media freedoms”. On Thursday, rumours swirled that the move would be rolled back, but a senior finance ministry official with direct knowledge of the matter said on condition of anonymity that there were no such plans.

The access has traditionally been given to journalists who obtain an accreditation from the government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB). A PIB enrolment comes with several benefits, including subsidised healthcare, but is done only after vetting by a committee.

The access a PIB-accredited journalist gets is not available to other journalists and the general public, who are required to seek appointments or log their visits to government offices. However, this access doesn’t extend to the ministry of external affairs, the ministry of defence, and the Prime Minister’s Office – all of which can be entered only after an appointment is fixed.

In the United States, free access – without having to log or request visits -- to a federal office such as the State Department requires a “hard pass” that is specifically issued for reporters who need frequent access. Such a pass is also required to access the White House (it was in the news last year when the White House rescinded the pass issued to CNN’s Jim Acosta after a spat he had with President Donald Trump).

In the United Kingdom, the most widely recognised press credentials are issued by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), with no intervention or checks by the government. NUJ credentials are recognised by police and all public-sector bodies, but it does not entitle free or unrestricted access to offices.

“It is not possible to wander around government offices in the UK without appointment. After an appointment is made, journalists need to show their press cards and wait at the security entrance to be collected by the person meeting them or an official on their behalf,” said Vijay Rana, the former radio editor of BBC World Service Hindi.

“The idea that journalists can wander around government offices in UK is considered strange – journalists don’t expect to be able to do so, neither do officials/ministers,” he added.

Experts say the lack of free access in countries such as United Kingdom is made up for by the level of transparency in governance under a system called “open government” environment. Open government policies are in place in Norway, Finland, Sweden,the Netherlands and Denmark – the five countries at the top of the World Press Freedom Rankings. These policies include free access to government data that is not sensitive.

In France, the government-recognised Commission de la Carte d’identité des Journalistes Professionnels (CCIJP) issues the official identity card required for all French journalists. The credentials are given on condition that a journalist has been working in the field for at least three months.

Journalists with a CCIJP credentials are allowed to freely access press rooms, offices, museums and entitles them to social protection provisions laid down by the French Brachard Law.

To be sure, the access for accredited journalists in India also has been linked to security. The PIB press card mentions it is “valid for entry into buildings under MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) security zone”. All central government offices, except for those under the defence ministry, and the Prime Minister’s Office, are under the MHA security zone.

The Press Council of India (PCI) will seek comments from the Union ministry of finance on the curbs announced on journalists accredited by the Press Bureau of Information (PIB), its chairperson said after meeting several media unions over the issue on Thursday.

The PCI is a statutory, quasi-judicial body set up for the preservation of press freedom. The issue was also raised in parliament by Congress leader Kapil Sibal, who flagged the issue to minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

First Published: Jul 12, 2019 07:24 IST