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New Delhi: New guidelines for central media accreditation, published on the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting website, now contain 10 disqualification clauses leaving journalists’ Press Information Bureau status vulnerable to subjective interpretation.
The Central Media Accreditation Guidelines, 2022, come after various journalist groups have questioned the manner in which the Union government has arbitrarily changed practices associated with the process of accreditation.
Accreditation allows journalists access to government offices and official functions.
As journalists tweeted about the new guidelines, conversation on social media focused on how they could easily be used to stifle free media in the country.
Central Media Accreditation Guidelines 2022 put out by PIB: Accreditation may be suspended/withdrawn if journalist is charged with serious cognisable offence; acts in manner prejudicial to sovereignty & integrity of India, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, etc
— Bharti Jain (@bhartijainTOI) February 7, 2022
The guidelines put out by the Ministry raise further concerns since they leave it to the discretion of government nominated officials to assess what is defamatory or prejudicial to the sovereignty or integrity of India while deciding on whether a journalist’s accreditation should be suspended or withdrawn.
Providing a conduct-related and interpretation-based approach, one of the clauses pertaining to suspension or withdrawal of accreditation lays down the grounds for such action if a journalist “acts in a manner which is prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality of in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Importantly, there are 10 clauses provided in the guidelines for suspension or withdrawal of the accreditation of an accredited journalist. The guidelines also provide that an accreditation would be liable to be suspended or withdrawn if a journalist used it for “non-journalistic activities” or if he or she “has been charged with a serious cognizable offence.”
Indian Express has reported that the guidelines also prohibit a journalist from mentioning “accredited to the Government of India” on social media, visiting cards or letterheads.
Such clauses were absent in the last set of guidelines issued in 2013.
The guidelines also provide the “procedure for grant of accreditation” and the “functions of Principal DG, PIB” in the matter.
These guidelines state that “the Government of India shall constitute a Committee called the Central Media Accreditation Committee, chaired by the Principal DG, PIB and comprising of up to 25 members nomination by the Government of India to discharge the functions laid down under these guidelines.”
The CMAC would function for a period of two years from the date of its first meeting and shall meet once in a quarter or more frequently, if necessary.
The decisions of the CMAC, the guidelines said, “shall be taken on the basis of majority of the members present and any dissent may be duly recorded”.
No consultations with CPAC, journalists
In a letter to Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur, the Press Club of India which has thousands of working journalists as its members, had in early January this year stated that “since after Independence, the facility of the Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation card, after due investigation of the journalists’ credentials, has been granted to media persons for enabling their unhindered visits and access to the government offices and institutions.”
At different points of time, whenever deemed necessary, the government broadened the procedura”l workability of this facility,” it said.
The PCI had also regretted that the consultative process associated with changes or amendments to the accreditation process had been done away with.
“As and when, based on the demands of different organisations, policies were amended with a view to raising the quota of accreditation, policymakers took the trouble to seek the suggestions of the Central Press Accreditation Committee (CPAC), Press Association and other senior journalists,” it had stated, adding that “this practice is not being followed now.”
‘Inordinate delay in renewal of accreditation cards by PIB’
Incidentally, in its letter to Thakur, the Press Club of India had urged the Minister to also expedite the process of renewal of media accreditation cards issued by PIB.
The Press Club of India had told Thakur that the delay in the renewal of accreditation had caused “misgivings” that the government wants to suppress coverage of news and views. It had also urged that the validity of the previous cards be extended till new ones are issued.
The PCI had also charged that the inordinate delay in the annual renewal of the accreditation cards issued by the Press Information Bureau to journalists was “an overt or covert effort to prevent media persons from being kept informed of the government’s viewpoints on news emanating from ministries”.
It also claimed that the media was not “officially informed of any specific reason for the delay or impediment in the process” of renewal of PIB cards.
Stating that the move has “caused misgivings”, the letter said, “it is felt that this move is heedlessly and needlessly aimed at suppressing coverage of news and views gathering, controlling freedom of press and putting undue pressure on correspondents and photographers.”
The PCI had also said that since an impression is being given in official circles that the delay in renewals was due to streamlining of the system of issuing PIB accreditation, then in such a scenario an order should be issued for extending the validity of the cards that were valid until 2021 up to December 31, 2022 to ensure that there was “no disruption of work of the accredited correspondents in catering the government news to the public without any hassles”.
By that time, it suggested, the ministry should also hold consultations with the Central Press Accreditation Committee and other stakeholders on the accreditation process.