Lucknow: The Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha administration’s decision to bar journalists from entering the assembly’s Central Hall has led to considerable outrage among those covering the ongoing budget session. Many have called it undemocratic, and some, “humiliating.”
Suresh Kumar Khanna, the state finance minister, presented the state budget for 2024–25 on Monday, February 5. The session however began on February 2, when journalists learnt that they will not be allowed to enter the same hall from which they had covered the proceedings for decades.
The central hall and the assembly hall – where lawmakers sit for house proceedings – are both located on the second floor of the state assembly building. This is why it has long been a favoured haunt for journalists, as it allows them to meet and question ministers and lawmakers as well.
Opposition parties, too, have used the central hall to hold protests, interact with the media, and answer reporters’ questions. Sometimes ruling party leaders also addressed the media at the same hall.
According to journalists, this move has made it difficult to cover the state assembly as comprehensively as earlier because ministers and lawmakers would no longer be available for impromptu interactions.
They believe that the Vidhan Sabha administration has been undermining the media over the past year. In 2022, marshals from Vidhan Sabha security brutally assaulted journalists on the lawn during their coverage of Samajwadi Party protests. SP is the main opposition party with 113 lawmakers in the 403-member assembly.
Some senior journalists see these attempts as a well-planned strategy by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which they believe wants to reduce coverage of opposition parties.
‘Dance to its tune’
The Uttar Pradesh Accredited Correspondent Committee (UPACC) is also disgruntled with the recent move, and the committee has written to Satish Mahana, the Vidhan Sabha Speaker, urging for the revocation of the order forbidding journalists from entering the central hall.
Hemant Tewari, president of the UPACC, told The Wire that journalists have faced persistent humiliation and attacks in recent years in UP, particularly while covering the state assembly. “Previously, during the BJP’s first tenure, 2017–2022, the Vidhan Sabha administration humiliated veteran journalists by denying them entry into the lobby of the assembly and not issuing lobby passes for them. Now in their second tenure, they are again doing the same thing to media personnel by preventing them from entering the central hall,” he said.
Tewari stated that it would now be difficult for videographers and photojournalists to capture images and videos of protests organised by opposition parties too. “The press room is on the first floor, where nobody will come to talk to the media, and reporters would not get a chance to question ministers and lawmakers. Now they will write news only from government handouts,” he said.
Tewari has demanded a separate chamber near the assembly hall or access to the central hall for journalists.
Veteran journalist Sharat Pradhan believes the BJP is an undemocratic party and wants to diminish the opposition’s voice. “This regime promotes only those media outlets that dance to its tune and dislike the journalists who write critical news or question the government,” said Pradhan.
Another journalist, Vijay Mishra, told The Wire that he too met with Speaker Mahana to express his concerns about the move and the latter promised him an alternative arrangement for journalists. However, Mishra believed that the central hall was the best place in the assembly for journalists to cover news from.
Mishra said it is incredibly unfortunate that the central hall, which was formerly a gathering place for journalists, has changed into a place where lawmakers and ministers could purportedly unwind during assembly business. “Are lawmakers coming to the assembly to relax or to perform their legislative duties?” he asked.
Assembly Speaker Mahana said, “We have not displaced media personnel from the assembly, but rather relocated them to another location.”
According to Mahana, this is common. “Previously, the rooms allotted to political parties had also changed,” he said.
On being asked as to why it was that the existing press room in the assembly building did not have enough space for all journalists, he replied that space is limited.
Nearly 950 journalists are accredited in UP. Most media organisations assign accredited journalists to cover the assembly proceedings.