The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) transition into a full-fledged political party can be mapped not just by the current tussle for power within, but also by the way in which it deals with the media.
Reports of a “ban” on the entry to the Delhi Secretariat trickled in within days of the new government taking oath, providing fodder for hasty comparisons of AAP with the Modi Sarkar at the Centre that prefers to keep the media at bay.
(The perceived shutting-out of media had led to the Editors Guild urging the Centre to “enlarge access and engage more actively” last year.)
Journalists we spoke to across TV and print organisations covering the Delhi government and AAP say the comparison may be a bit of a stretch. But almost all agreed that AAP is just like any other political party, or even worse, when it comes to dealing with the media, especially negative stories.
Unlike the Sheila Dixit government, AAP has restricted open access to the Delhi Secretariat till 3 pm. The timing was mutually agreed upon after the members of the Delhi Press Accreditation Committee met with AAP party members. “For the first two days, the entry was blocked to the Secretariat. There was a bit of confusion and chaos. But the matter was sorted out and they [AAP leaders] have agreed to allow free entry after 3 pm. Cameras are still not allowed,” says Ratnesh Mishra, Chairman of the committee.
A journalist working with a daily and covering the Delhi government for more than 10 years stated that it is odd for a party that came to power on claims of greater transparency to restrict access. “We are seasoned journalists and have been going on daily rounds of the Secretariat for many years for news gathering. Some of us are accredited journalists – for which we undergo even a police verification – what is the problem with allowing us entry before 3? Is this democracy?”
Nagendra Sharma, a former journalist and media advisor to Kejriwal, clarified that there is no restriction on entry and only a streamlining of the process. “You can enter from 10 to 6 if you have an appointment and passes are issued without any problem. After 3 pm, you can enter if you have a DIB card or a regular press card issued by your organisation even without an appointment. The decision was made in complete consultation with the accreditation committee. No other Secretariat has had such open access as Delhi, we have merely streamlined the process. Even in the Centre, access is restricted in places like the Ministry of Home Affairs.”
A journalist working with one of the leading newspapers agrees that there were no restrictions during the Sheila government, but says the media also needs to regulate itself. “There was less curiosity during the Sheila government. With the new government there is high level of interest and it can get difficult for the government to work with constant intrusion by the media. I don’t think the timings are a bad thing at all. Pehele journalists saara saara din Secretariat main baithe rehte the, chai peete rehte the. I don’t see how that is a great practice in anyway.”
The fact that TV crews made it difficult for Kejriwal and his party during the 49-day government is echoed by some other print journalists: “I kid you not, I have seen cameras trying to follow Kejriwal into the toilet too. In the early days, some TV people literally pushed mics into his mouth for a byte.”
No negative news, please
While scribes we spoke to have more or less come around the new timings for entry into the Secretariat, most were unanimous in stating that the AAP can get particularly vindictive when it comes to negative stories.
“A story is neither negative, nor positive – it is just a story. But if they [AAP] feel a story shows them in an unflattering light, they make it difficult for the journalist to get a story the next time,” says a scribe working with a Hindi newspaper. Some journalists state they were denied information after a negative story.
“They need to grow up when it comes to dealing with negative stories. We have done several stories against the Congress party and the Sheila government, too, but as long as we had the facts right, they never made it difficult for us to function. The new government tends to get a bit spiteful in reacting to negative stories and seems to keep a tab on which journalist is writing what,” says another reporter working with an English news channel.
(All journalists we spoke to wanted to remain anonymous fearing being singled out by party members.)
There’s also the perception that AAP leaders tend to give stories selectively to their “favourite” journalists. Covering the bitter infighting was particularly difficult for some scribes – “if you write a story with quotes from Prashant Bhushan or Yogendra Yadav, then the Kejriwal camp would jump at you, and vice versa.”
Fear of being heard
“Almost everyone in AAP — from the workers at the lower rung and senior party leaders — have an app on their phone to record conversations. Since the sting involving The Indian Express journalist emerged, it’s become a little scary for us to talk freely,” says a journalist working with a TV channel.
Scribes we spoke to felt that the “sting culture” in the party comes in the way of cultivating sources. “You can’t be talking freely if you’re constantly suspicious of the conversation being recorded to be used in future against you. Also, sometimes you agree or play along with a source simply to get more information, it is not fair if that is recorded and presented out of context,” says a journalist working with an English daily.
Another journalist, who’s been on the Delhi government beat for a while, says it is mostly the younger lot of journalists who are facing these problems. “These problems occur while covering any political party. You just have to have a thick skin and go about your work. As for stings, journalists should be careful while talking to a source, there’s no need to give out everything. The idea is get information, not give it out.”
A younger journalist who’d been covering the party for about two years agrees: “Both the party and the journalists covering it are young and are learning how to deal with each other. It’s been interesting but it could help if party leaders take things a little less personally.”
While it’s true that AAP is still only learning how to be a political party, it has a sizeable number of journalists as active party members. It’s not too much, then, to expect AAP leaders to be a little less cagey in dealing with the media.