Media

Why the Home Ministry Circular Clamping Down on Media Access is a Big Deal

The Prime Minister’s Office has no spokesperson and Narendra Modi himself, who loves one way communication via Twitter, has an aversion to journalists asking unscripted, impromptu questions:

 

The Ministry of External Affairs has a dedicated and very helpful spokesperson but External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj herself is unavailable for questions outside of the very rare press conferences she holds. Taking a signal from the highest level, most ministers are loath to have regular dealings with the free press, preferring instead the comforting engagement that Doordarshan and All India Radio provide. Bureaucrats, in turn, taking a cue from their ministers, have come to realise that talking to reporters is not a career-enhancing activity.

Silence as strategy

The refusal to answer questions, or to even designate a person authorised to answer media queries, is this government’s preferred method of managing a potential public relations crisis. As Narendra Modi demonstrated in the aftermath of the 2002 riots, questions that remain unanswered long enough have a tendency to eventually go away.

Earlier this year, when a young Greenpeace India activist was stopped at Delhi airport and prevented from boarding a flight for London, there was no one in the Home Ministry who was willing to take responsibility for the patently illegal act and provide answers to the media on the record about why she had been stopped. It is not as if the government did not have its reasons. These were presented in the High Court later in an affidavit signed by a junior, under secretary-level officer, only to be dismissed by the judge as a violation of a citizen’s right to dissent. To date, however, no senior official, let alone minister from the MHA or the Modi government, has been willing to take questions on the record about this blatantly undemocratic act.

Despite this tight management over the dissemination of information, the BJP remains unhappy with the way the media has been covering the government. The party has seen its public stock plummet over the past few weeks – thanks to the Vyapam scam and revelations of links between the fugitive former cricket administrator Lalit Modi, on the one hand, and Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, on the other – and it is natural for the media to be seen as the villain.

‘News traders’, ‘bazaaru media’ and ‘presstitutes’ are some of the phrases the Prime Minister, a senior minister, and their supporters have used to describe the media over the past 18 months. Steps have also been taken to protect Modi from the kind of spontaneous, on-the-record jousts that happen when journalists travel with the PM (the solution: journalists no longer get to fly on his plane, and questions are not allowed at  joint ‘press conferences’ with foreign heads of government).

This week, however, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a circular that takes the government (and party) offensive against the media to an entirely new level.

In the garb of facilitating dissemination of “information to the media”, it says that the Additional Director General (ADG) Media will be the “single point for dissemination of all publicity material and clarifications to the media” from now on. The circular also decrees that briefings can only take place in a specially designated room in the ministry and not anywhere else. “M.A. Ganapathy, Joint Secretary (Internal Security), being the official spokesperson of the Ministry will brief the media on a need-to-do basis,” the circular specifies.

What this means is that journalists are no longer allowed to seek out and meet individual MHA officials for stories they are working on, least of all in their rooms.

Full spin zone

At the best of times, the MHA has never been particularly friendly to journalists. Home Ministers like Rajnath Singh, P. Chidambaram, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Shivraj Patil, L.K. Advani and Indrajit Gupta – to name those who have held the coveted portfolio over the past 19 years –  have been more or less accessible depending on their personal preferences and confidence-level in dealing with the media, but the ministry’s official functioning has tended towards the opaque.

Correspondents covering the MHA report on a variety of important issues such as national security, inter-state problems, central paramilitary organisations, disaster management and border policing, all of which the public needs to be informed about. The ministry, however, has always had a ‘need to know’ approach to information – that if the MHA doesn’t feel the need to say something about a particular subject, then there is no reason for journalists to be interested in it. The lack of transparent, structured communication meant reporters looking for stories beyond the routine had to rely on individual contacts within the ministry’s hierarchy.This is, of course, how journalists ought to function but there was a downside too. In the hands of a skilled reporter and editor, information that an official provides (or leaks) would be vetted carefully and used or discarded depending on the editorial judgment of the newspaper, website or TV channel concerned. But if the reporter or media house was cutting corners in the hopes of an “exclusive”, the anonymous MHA briefing could be misused.

When Advani was Home Minister, for example, MHA officials used pliant reporters to plant the most outrageous lies against the respected Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani, who had been framed for an imaginary offence under the Official Secrets Act. But there were other reporters who also had access to sections of the MHA empire who did their best to set the record straight.

By clamping down on unauthorised contact between reporters and MHA officials, the Home Ministry is trying to make sure that the official or semi-official information (or spin) it puts out on a particular event will not be contested credibly by reporters who have access to North Block sources who could challenge that narrative or introduce unhelpful nuances.

Milder precedents

In 2014, during the Manmohan Singh government’s tenure, an attempt was made to restrict the movement of journalists just across Rajpath in South Block when two correspondents landed up uninvited at the room of a joint secretary in the Ministry of Defence.

But despite that plausible ‘provocation’, no detailed circular was issued; instead, a guard was placed at the foot of the stairs to restrict the movement of journalists seeking to go up to the first floor. Similarly, those desirous of visiting the Military Intelligence unit in the MoD’s basement, commonly referred to as the “gaddha”, or pit, had to first get approval from the officers there. However, these rules were relaxed soon after.

The MEA has had a long-standing policy – since the time Jaswant Singh was minister way back in 1999 – of not allowing accredited correspondents access to its building without a prior appointment. However, the MEA has never sought to gag its officials or the media, despite having one of the best-functioning spokesperson’s offices anywhere in government. Even today, a reporter can gain access to the ministry premises by fixing up an appointment to meet one official, and then knock on the door of others without any problem.

During the Vajpayee era, the MHA toyed with the idea of creating an MEA-type spokesperson. An Additional Secretary-level officer, P.D. Shenoy, was given the job but the system never took off as journalists found him unhelpful and uninformed. Inconvenient or difficult questions were never responded to and it became easier for beat reporters to chase down the relevant joint secretary or director.

The latest circular suggests the MHA is reverting to NDA-1’s arrangement, with the added element of explicitly seeking to prevent journalists from reaching out to anyone other than the ADG (Media). Even the designated ministry spokesperson – the Joint Secretary (Internal Security) – will interact strictly on a ‘need to do basis’, meaning he will also not routinely be available.

See also: Beat Reporters Take Dim View of Home Ministry Gag Order

Featured Image: North and South Block, New Delhi. Credit: Saad Akhtar, CC-by-2.0.

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  • newkidontheblock

    Is it not possible to bypass these restrictions, for instance, by contacting officials on phone? I hope our media continue to raise questions and seek answers in public interest.

  • ashok759

    I honestly believe the government’s performance, also its image, would have benefited enormously if it had been communicative with the media almost on a daily basis, as the White House is.