Thursday, 12 October 2006

Muzzling the media

Attempts to muzzle the media are back. What else can one expect from a Congress-led government supported by the Left.
I reproduce below a letter from the media advisor to the PM, Sanjaya Baru, a letter from the director, public relations attached to the PMO and a protest letter written by a spunky journalist, Jal Khambatta.
Going through Baru's letter, it appears that the behaviour of some journalists has sparked off the action of limiting coverage of Prime Minister's functions to only accredited journalists.
Without defending journalists abusing officials, staging dharnas and breaking security rules (I have myself been appalled at the behaviour of many of my tribe), let me explain why I (and Jal) see this letter as an attempt to gag the press.
Firstly, Baru's statement that the PMO will decide which meetings the press will cover smacks of arbitrariness. How can he decide which meeting will yield a news story for the media? What will end up happening is that Baru will later call select journalists who he is sure will toe his line and give them private briefings briefings with the PMO's own angle. It is a sad comment on journalism that this is happening and some of the people indulging in this are very senior journalists.
Then look at the warning that those who engage in unruly behaviour will have their accreditation cancelled. Such a provision exists anyway and often is not used because people complain to editors and the concerned persons are pulled up. In such a situation for Baru to seek opinion on how to deal with unruly journalists is nothing but a threat.
Accreditation rules don't allow newspapers less than a year old and journalists with less than a certain number of years to be accredited. So all such newspapers and journalists will be barred from covering the PMO, making it easier for the PMO to `manage' the media. In any case, mostly it is accredited journalists alone who cover PMO. And often the unruly behaviour is by them. So what is Baru trying to do, really?
I think this letter has less to do with some unruly incidents and more to do with the security breach that happened when two young girls and one boy drove into the PM's house complex. The PMO - especially Baru - tried to downplay it but the whole incident would never have come to light if the electronic media had not been present there to cover a cabinet meeting. Now briefings of the cabinet meeting are held at the office of the Press Information Bureau, some kms away from the PM's residence. The journalists were hanging around there to get sound bytes from departing ministers. And that's how they got not just visuals of these youngsters driving up to the reception area but also of the utter laxness on the part of the security forces. Now, clearly, this is not something that will be a `news story for the media' in Baru's definition. In fact, his proposed action will effectively ensure that the media doesn't get to know of any such incidents which could occur.
The other reason I think this smacks of muzzling is that this is the second time Baru has written to editors in such a high handed way.
In the wake of the dizzying market rise and the sudden crash last year, one irresponsible television channel put out the news that the PMO and the Intelligence Bureau etc were holding a meeting on the market behaviour. Most newspapers swallowed this and wrote about it. Turned out such a meeting never happened. Bad and irresponsible journalism and worthy of condemnation. It was an incident that should have journalists and their bosses introspecting on the way they work.
But what did Baru do? He shot of a letter to editors hectoring them on what happened and asking them to take action against the journalists concerned and - hold your breath - report back to the PMO on the action taken!
Well, going by that, this letter is very, very mild!

Dr. Sanjaya Baru D.O. No. 970/MA/G/2006
Tel 23016920 New Delhi - 110 011
August 24,2006
Dear Editor,
I am sure it must have come to your attention that we have once again had a couple of unfortunate incidents in the recent past at the Prime Minister's House involving the media.
I am writing this letter to you to seek your cooperation in a matter that I, as a media professional myself, feel we should revolve in the best interests of both the media and the Prime Minister.
You will agree with me that the Prime Minister has several meetings which do not necessarily yield a news story for the media. Whenever there is a meeting or an event of interest to the media, my office and the PIB normally ensure that the media is kept informed.
It is as much in our interests as it is in yours to secure media coverage for Prime Minister's programmes. Hence, you will appreciate that on occasions when the media is informed that there will be no statement from the Prime Minister's Office with respect to any meeting that the Prime Minister may have, it would be inappropriate for journalists to protest/sit in dharna and demand a statement or a byte for TV.
I, therefore, request you to tell your colleague who has been assigned to cover the Prime Minister's Office that it would not be regarded as good professional conduct to stage demonstrations in pursuit of news either at Prime Minister's Office (PMO) or at Prime Minister's House (PMH).
May I also request you to draw the attention of your colleagues to the imperatives of security at PMO and PMH and the need to be courteous in their behaviour with officials and staff to Special Protection Group and Delhi Police. The security personnel are only doing their job just as our media colleagues are also doing their job.
I have issued instructions that henceforth only PIB accredited media personnel will be permitted access to the media stand at PMO and PMH.
I request you to ensure that your reporting and audio-visual staff covering PMO and PMH have PIB accreditation.
I would like your advice on what action you feel, as an editor and senior colleague, we should take when journalists misbehave and use foul language when dealing with PMO/PIB staff and security officials.
Do you think it is fair to seek their transfer out of the PMO beat or withdraw their accreditation? Or, would you prefer that I merely report such instances to the editor concerned in the hope that the organization to which the journalist belongs, will take necessary disciplinary action. I will be grateful to you for your considered opinion.
Finally, let me add that I am fully aware of the physical stress reporters and cameramen undergo while waiting for a briefing outside PMO/PMH.
I have tried to improve facilities, especially at RCR. We are in the process of securing sanction for a media room at RCR that will provide some basic amenities and facilities.
I hope you will appreciate my concerns in writing this letter to you.
With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
(Sanjaya Baru)

28 August 2006
All correspondents covering PM Beat
Dear Sir/Madam,
As is the practice for coverages in all Ministries, the Prime Minister's Office has decided that henceforth media persons with PIB accreditation alone be permitted to cover the programmes of the Prime Minister both at South Block and at 7 Race Course Road. This also includes the media stand within the precincts of 7 Race Course Road and the Car Park area at the South Block. This will be in force with effect from 1st September, 2006.
2. You may like to bring this to the notice of all concerned persons in your organization.
3. Further communication regarding enhancement of accreditation quota will follow separately.
Y.S.R. Murthy, DPR[PM]
PIB, 1st floor, A wing, Shastri Bhawan
Tel. 23381211; 9868111273
2338 4768; 9873079681 [Dhiraj, IO-PM mobilie]; 2338 3203 [fax]

Jal Khambata replies to this email on 28 August
Please be advised that this attempt to gag the Media would not get better publicity to the PM. The media persons gather at the two places not only for official version but also to catch those coming to meet PM for their comments.
Your media alert and the letter of the PM's Media Advisor to editors last week smacks of the Emergency days when we were allowed to publish nothing except what is officially cleared by the Censor. 2006 is, however, not 1976.
what a poor attempt to get positive publicity to PM by allowing only accredited journalists and that too only outside PMO and PMH and not inside PMO and threatening to cancel their accreditation if they do not sing the official tunes. Accreditations are sought for entry into ministries for coverage and not for coverage from outside and hence,may I please point out that it is wrong to say that it is the practice for coverages in all ministries that you now want to introduce in PMO.
As a seasoned PR executive, you may please like to advise the PMO, and rightly so, to desist from this kind of gag orders.
With thanks and regards,
Jal Khambata

Y.S.R Murthy replies on 28 August 2006, by email:
Dear Jal Khambata,
I am sorry that you have not understood it in the correct perspective. For entry into any Govt. building you require security cleared PIB accrediation card.
Media freedom does not entitle one to sit on a dharna at high security places and obstruct passage of Ministers etc, as happened twice in the recent past. I do not share some of the sentiments expressed by you.
We can discuss it over in person. If you happen to pass by Shastri Bhavan, it will be a pleasure to meet with you and clarify a few aspects.

To which Jal replies:
Dear Mr Murthy:
Journalists will always remain watchdogs irrespective of howsoever you try to banish inconvenient ones. They will certainly block ministers and officials to extract information. Would you suggest that the kind of restrictions Dr Sanjaya Baru is trying to slap tally with the Right to Information? If I am not wrong, almost all journalists involved in the two incidents you refer to were the security-cleared accredited PIB card holders. Threat to cancel accreditations of inconvenient journalists or ask editors to remove them from the PM's beat will only boomrang.
Today, journalists in a chorus protested to Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhavi at the AICC Press briefing about Dr Baru's letter. Here is also a statement by Delhi Union of Journalists for your ready reference. I believe Editors' Guild and other professional bodies may also follow suit.
With thanks and regards,

And on 31 August 2006 this is what happens (Jal files a story):
From Our Delhi Bureau
NEW DELHI: Journalists turning up at the Prime Minister's House Thursday evening on official invitation to attend a book release by Dr Manmohan Singh had the first taste of the new game rules for the PM's coverage set by his media advisor Dr Sanjaya Baru.
They were thrown out, though with due courtesy, by the security personnel as soon as the function was over, not allowed to even have tea and snacks served to guests after the function.
Every such occasion gives an opportunity to journos to have a chat with the Prime Minister but the security personnel firmly and yet politely told them that they cannot go anywhere near him. The function over, you have no reason to remain on the premises,a senior officerof the Special Protection Group (SPG) that provides security to the PM affirmed, pointing out that the security had orders to banish all journalists from the PM's House immediately.
The gathered guest at Panchvati hall in the PM's House for the release of noted constitutional lawyer Fali S Nariman's book titled "India's Legal System : Can it be Saved?" looked askance as the SPG personnel cordoned off the Media persons and drew them out of the gate.
Dr Sanjaya Baru looked at from a distance just as some journalists pleaded with security men that they had come on invite and not barged in the premises to be dealt in such a manner.
They,however, quietly left without picking up any fight as if sobered by Dr Sanjaya Baru's threat to cancel their PIB (Press Information Bureau) accreditation and get inconvenient correspondents removed from the PM's beat.
Two, three journalists, however, did protest at the security personnel, showing all courtesy in pushing them out, that they always get opportunity to approach the Prime Minister and ask some questions after such functions. You are doing your duty but let us also allow us to do our duty, they pleaded but in vain. "Sorry, you cannot meet him.You cannot even stay here any longer," a senior officer responded.

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