'Arbitrary, Without Due Process of Law': EGI Statement Slams New PIB Accreditation Guidelines

The EGI's statement details the many provisions in the new guidelines which can be seen as violative to journalists' rights of freedom of expression, which were drafted without any consultation with relevant stakeholders.

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New Delhi: The Editors Guild of India (EGI), on Sunday, February 20, issued a statement expressing deep concerns with respect to the Central Media Accreditation Guidelines issued by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) on February 7 and has called for the new guidelines to be revoked.

The statement, signed by the EGI’s president Seema Mustafa, general secretary Sanjay Kapoor and treasurer Anand Nath, has described the new provisions in the PIB’s guidelines relating to the revocation of journalists’ accreditation as “vague”, “arbitrary” and “without any due process of law”.

The statement cites two example in particular from the new PIB guidelines: that journalists’ accreditation can be revoked if they are “charged with a serious, cognisable offence” or if the journalist acts in a manner which is “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.

The EGI specifically highlights the facts that journalists who are merely “charged” with such offences are liable to have their accreditation cancelled, describing the provisions as “bizarre”,

Moreover, the statement takes objection to the fact that no procedures have been set out for cancellation, no mention has been made of any adjudicating authority for these cancellations/suspensions and that journalists have “not been given any opportunity to be heard”.

The statement also specifically questions the fact that ‘defamation’ has been listed as a grounds for cancellation of a journalist’s accreditation.

A new clause in the PIB guidelines vis-a-vis police verification has also been highlighted by the EGI since the guidelines do not “define the contours of this verification”. According to the undersigned, the provision gives the police “unfettered powers” to deny accreditation to journalists “who may be seen as critical of the government”.

The statement goes on to allege that the “vague, arbitrary and draconian” clauses have been included in order to “restrict any critical or investigative reporting of government affairs” and that the new guidelines have been issued “without any prior consultation with journalists’ bodies, media organisations or any other relevant stakeholders”.

While demanding the withdrawal of these guidelines, the EGI also “urges the PIB to undertake meaningful consultation with all the stakeholders if it is intent on revising them (the guidelines)”.

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Letter to the PIB

In addition to the aforementioned statement, the EGI has also written a letter to Jaideep Bhatnagar, the principal director general (DG) of the PIB in which it says that the guidelines “impose unilateral, onerous and arbitrary conditions upon journalists”.

The letter raises the aforementioned issues and more in greater detail with the PIB’s principal DG. With regards to the provision allowing the revocation of accreditation is a journalist acted against the “sovereignty and integrity of the country..”, the letter details several reasons that make this provision arbitrary and violative of the due process of law.

These reasons include the absence of an adjudicating authority, no mechanisms laid out for redressal or appeal, and the fact that the punishment is “disproportionate and uncalled for”, considering that the offence already has existing remedies in law. 

Moreover, since the grounds of suspension amount to reasonable restrictions to fundamental rights of freedom of expression, if they are adjudicated by a member of the executive they violate the principle of separation of powers.

Similarly, the letter highlights the provisions regarding the requirement of police verification and the revocation of accreditation of journalists charged with serious, cognisable offences, calling them arbitrary, vague and violative of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression.

The letter also takes objections to certain provisions that have been removed in the new accreditation guidelines, namely, the mandate for the principal DG, PIB to send a monthly report to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) containing a list of accreditation applications approved, rejected, or pending at the end of the month,

As the letter notes, since the MIB could review rejected or pending applications, this mechanism would provide a layer of accountability and review, which has now been removed.

Moreover, the letter notes that the new guidelines provide the principal DG sole discretion to grant accreditation to editors, effectively removing the independence of the Central Media Accreditation Committee, which is chaired by the principal DG and thus removing any right of appeal of journalists and editors.

The letter also pulls up the provision regarding accreditation to freelance journalists, which requires freelance journalists working in digital/electronic media to submit at least 20 links to news stories from the past six months; a number which the letter calls “extraordinarily high”.

Finally, the letter takes objection to the fact that the new guidelines were drafted without any consultation from relevant stakeholders from the journalistic fraternity, despite directly affecting journalists.