(This story was published on 12 February 2022 and is being republished from The Quint's archives in the backdrop of the Centre questioning the methodology behind the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, which ranked India 150 out of 180.)
There has been a glowing filter through which Indian democracy has been viewed ever since it recovered from the setback to its democratic record in 1975. Indian journalism, too, has benefited from the global hype about Indian media and its 400-plus news channels and over 1,00,000 publications registered by the Registrar of Newspapers for India. The media scene has been characterised as diverse, irreverent and reflective of a rainbow nation. The word “vibrant” has been done to death.
But in this happy story of “vibrancy”, the latest Central Media Accreditation Guidelines 2022 are a signature moment. The ten disqualification clauses leave the status of journalists’ Press Information Bureau accreditation vulnerable to extremely subjective interpretation.
Who is a 'Journalist'?
Accreditation is a process that allows journalists access to government offices and official dos. It has always meant a cacophonous and diverse set of creatures, not of scribes aligned to the governmental worldview alone. Anyone who has attended gatherings where ‘accredited’ journalists have gathered over the years would bear testimony to how diverse their views have been.
The new definition, in effect, tries to alter the fundamental definition of who is a journalist and turns a question of what should be a routine and wide list of access to be able to evaluate government functioning, to a list of government-approved journalists. Anyone not aligned to the ruling party’s worldview can be taken to not be one. Now, government-nominated officials will take a call on the conduct of journalists, on whether what they say is ‘defamatory’ or prejudicial to the sovereignty or integrity of India.
This would mean that a journalist’s writings would be judged on parameters that are open to interpretation.
In the words of 6.8 (h) of the Guidelines, if a said 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”, s/he stands to lose accreditation.
Discrediting Those Who Ask Questions
India’s history of fighting back attempts at suppressing the press and writing critical of the government of the day, starting with the repressive Vernacular Press Act of 1878, is deeply tied in with India’s larger struggle to be free. These new guidelines destroy the belief that the Indian state would never again impose restrictions on the press, being wiser after Indira Gandhi’s experience of introducing official censorship.
Why does access to government matter for journalists? Over all other things, it is a signal for how accountable the government thinks it is. Like the Right to Information lifted democracy, introducing a sense of the bureaucracy being accountable, journalists having legitimate access to the corridors of power makes it clear that those holding executive power (elected representatives and officers) will be held to account and must be ready to face somewhat uncomfortable questions from journalists not aligned with their worldview.
Why Access to Govt Is Critical
Journalists here are meant to serve as proxies of the people at large, in the hope that they will be able to ask questions that would ensure that those who claim to represent them and have been vested with so much power will always be alert and anxious about being answerable. Unfortunately, over the years, access is not something political representatives have wanted to provide. For instance, the number of black-clad ‘commandos’ a politician has, which puts them totally out of bounds, has become a status symbol. This has nurtured the illusion that ruling politicians are above the fray and far too important to be reached directly, let alone be questioned.
The political executive is answerable to the people in a variety of ways. It is directly accountable to Parliament. Institutions like the judiciary hold it to account in a different sense, and accountability to the media, civil society and thought leaders is a very important arc in that circle.
This is critical if a democracy must remain one and not allow anyone with a mandate of five years to amass so much power that the very system is subverted. For the executive to be made to feel uncomfortable is the essence of democracy. This is why it’s important for accredited journalists to not be at the mercy of a nominated official or a chosen committee of journalists subject to arbitrary rules interpreting journalistic ‘conduct’.
India's Crumbling Press Freedom
Of course, these rules must be seen in the context of other steps. This government has already taken away the unfettered right of PIB journalists to enter government offices. The access of pass-holding journalists to enter and cover Parliament has been cut back sharply, citing the pandemic, and several journalist bodies have protested and written letters, but to no avail. Kashmir provides an uncomfortably clear crystal ball of the control that is sought to be exercised. Reporting on events has been cited to be worthy of police attention, and several journalists have been put behind bars for the act of reporting.
The World Press Freedom Index, where India has already recorded a dramatic fall, standing at 142 of 180, risks deteriorating further. Reporters Sans Frontier said in 2020, “With four journalists killed in connection with their work in 2020, India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.” This is not just about lives of journalists, but of them being canaries in the coalmine of democracy. New, controversial and extremely restrictive digital media rules, though stayed by two High Courts, are further indicators of the noose being tightened around the act of reporting.
Will we Jump the Red Line?
It must be said that while governments, especially those with a track record of wanting total control, will always want more of it, India’s mainstream media has done little to resist. Technological change and dependence on government advertising has left many beholden to government largesse. This has damaged the functioning of media in its role as an enhancer of the democratic spirit.
The open and genuine bhakti of some key proprietors to the ‘cause’ the Modi government openly stands for is also an important factor in shrinking the boast of “vibrant” Indian media.
The new ‘guidelines’ are not about ‘accrediting’ journalists but about how democracy is treated by those elected to office. It is a measure of how this government sees the role of questions, access and transparency. The poor health that India’s mainstream media finds itself in will only enable further 'Godi-fication', as an audacious government draws a line. Redemption is only to be found in jumping the thick red line. Will we jump the red line or will we meekly accept that we have a Prime Minister who has not faced the press in open fora in the last eight years?
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)