New Delhi: In the face of criticism by journalists, Home Ministry officials say that the new circular preventing reporters from meeting officers other than those authorised to speak to the media only seeks to regulate the flow of information by ‘converging the points of dissemination.’
This expression clearly has not impressed the beat correspondents. A senior journalist told The Wire, “This will severely restrict the free flow of information; as it is the Ministry refuses to share information through the RTI Act, claiming that it will affect national security. Officers who would earlier give information on condition of anonymity to journalists they trust will no longer want to be seen as sharing any information. There is an element of trust involved between bureaucrats and media and this circular seeks to break that. It wants journalists to be completely dependent on press release-kind of staid information.”
“Till early this year, it was quite common for senior officers to share certain documents with journalists as points of reference. But there was an underlying agreement that only the operative portion would be used and the names of the signatories or dates and file numbers would not be disclosed. But then some news channels began showing these papers, which led to a lot of embarrassment to the officials. This also impacted the news flow from MHA to some extent,” said a journalist.
But things really got bad after news stories emerged on the basis of ‘sensitive’ and half-baked information released by some officials of the ministry, which is also responsible for anti-Naxal operations and the recent surveillance on NGOs over alleged financial irregularities. One such news story pertained to the MHA’s reported investigation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, at a time when the Ministry was already pursuing the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace India.
However, the story did not go down well with the MHA, as there was not even a formal enquiry against the Foundation and the news reports played into the impression that had already gained ground among Western diplomats that the government was on a full-tilt offensive against any NGOs of all kinds.
Journalists on the beat point out that selective media leaks by some officers had also irked the publicity division: “Often very basic details of forthcoming events would be given out and this created a problem at the time of preparing and issuing a press release on the topic thereafter, since the matter would have already appeared in a few select publications. So it seems, this is also an attempt to ensure that `worthwhile’ news gets adequately shared.”
But journalists covering the ministry would rather be free birds, finding their own raw news picks for the day, rather than ‘ready to eat’ stories dished out by the officials there.