Dear District Magistrate, why can’t journalists get a Delhi-Noida border pass?
Opinion

Dear District Magistrate, why can’t journalists get a Delhi-Noida border pass?

The Uttar Pradesh government requires journalists to obtain passes to travel between Delhi and Noida. But the process of granting the passes is frustratingly arbitrary.

By

Ayush Tiwari

Basant Kumar

Published on :

On April 21, the Uttar Pradesh government sealed the Delhi-Noida border. The administration in Gautam Budh Nagar district — which includes Noida, Noida Extension, and Greater Noida — found that the novel coronavirus was infecting, and travelling through, commuters between Delhi and Noida. There were more than 2,000 cases in Delhi and 100 cases in GB Nagar by April 21, a surge that the order was supposed to contain.

The sealed border was an itch for journalists, who had to now acquire border passes to move between Delhi and Noida. “Those media personnel who have a pass issued by the additional police commissioner (headquarters) and the district information officer will be allowed movement,” said the administration’s order on April 22.

Since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown, journalists have only had to produce their press cards for the Delhi-Noida commute. Print and electronic media have been categorised under “essential services”.

But the latest order adds a layer of bureaucracy to press movement. Media outlets had to list employees who travel between the two cities for work and submit it to the district information officer and the headquarters of the additional commissioner of police. In an inexplicable decision, outlets were given less than 12 hours to do so. The advisory was issued at 1.30 am on April 22, and the list was supposed to reach the administration by 12 pm.

Later that day, the News Broadcasters Association, a private collective of influential TV news channels, wrote to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Ajay Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath.

“The closure of the Delhi-Noida border is posing extreme hardship and logistical hurdles,” wrote IndiaTV’s Rajat Sharma, the NBA chief. “In such circumstances, insisting on compliance by the media personnel with the mandate of obtaining special curfew passes or any other restrictions imposed on how the employees should travel on company-owned vehicles would jeopardise the very functioning of news channels during the lockdown.”

Although Sharma did not include print and digital media in his plea to Adityanath, his point is valid. We at Newslaundry have been trying to obtain a Delhi-Noida pass for eight days now, and “extreme hardship” captures our plight.

Three employees at Newslaundry live in Noida and commute to Delhi for work — an editor, a producer, and a reporter. So we filed our border pass application, neat in writing and perfect in format, to the district administration. For two days, we did not hear back.

When our editor got in touch with Rakesh Chauhan, the district information officer in GB Nagar, we were told that news websites were excluded from obtaining passes. So if you’re a journalist working for a digital media organisation, you cannot cross the Yamuna from Noida to Delhi and vice versa. To put it another way, if your words appear on a website and not a newspaper — and newspapers have been suspending or slashing their print editions anyway — your services have been downgraded by the Uttar Pradesh government.

Newslaundry was told that this rule was a matter of policy: as a reporter, my movement has been officially restricted in the NCT by the Adityanath government.

“We’re not giving passes to digital [media]. There’s a lockdown, why don’t you work from home or within the district?” Chauhan asked us over the phone.

We told him our office is in Delhi.

“So stay in Delhi then,” he said. “Digital channels have not been authorised for this. I, as a DIO, can tell you that we only recognise satellite channels and print media for border passes. We cannot give it to just anyone.”

Our efforts at explaining the daftness of this policy to Chauhan did not work. Either he did not understand the pointlessness of segregating media when it came to the movement of media professionals, or he pretended not to. After making inquiries with other news websites, we found that it was the latter: a popular news website, it turns out, had been granted a border pass by the GB Nagar administration. Not just for one reporter: it covered 11 employees and carried Chauhan’s signature.

So, we took this up with him once again.

“They must have sent it through another media house,” were Chauhan’s exact words when we confronted him over the phone. “Or they must be a news agency, not a website like you.”

We patiently explained to the bureaucrat that this website’s application is printed on its own letterhead, and so it can’t be sent “through another media house”. But then he bowled us over with the bit about this digital portal getting clearance because it is “a news agency”. Holy smokes! Did this man think Newslaundry delivered burgers? We duly returned to square one and explained to Chauhan that we too were an online “news agency”.

But the DIO had made up his mind. He was not on our wavelength of patience to begin with. He shouted and interrupted us over the phone and just as we told him his clearances seemed arbitrary and targeted, he hung up. He hasn’t answered our calls since.

In this hour of crisis, like typical UPwalas, we turned to our Lord and Saviour, the district magistrate, Suhas LY. Suhas is a much-admired badminton champion and is known to be a reasonable man. However, despite repeated calls and notes to his personal assistant over several days, we haven’t heard back. Once, when we did connect to him, he told me he avidly consumed Newslaundry’s content. “I’m in a meeting at this moment. Text me and we’ll talk later,” he said.

But our obedience gathered no fruit. So far, we’ve texted and called him a dozen times over the past few days and have not heard back.

In fact, we drove to the district magistrate’s office in Greater Noida on Wednesday to take this up with him face-to-face. He was not around and, once again, we left our name and reason for visit with his secretary over the phone. Once again, we were assured the district magistrate will get in touch. Once again, that did not happen.

Just next to the collectorate in Greater Noida is the office of the additional commissioner of police, Sriparna Gongulee. Gongulee is also tasked with allotting border passes to the media. At the reception, we were turned away from meeting her by an inspector. Newslaundry was told she was not entertaining appointments with journalists and that we should meet the DIO.

Over the past few days, emails to Gongulee have gone unanswered. Her personal assistant appears helpless. “She is in a meeting. Give me your name and number and I’ll connect you later today,” is what he throws at us every time we call. Perhaps he does not maintain a calendar.

The additional commissioner of police’s office in Greater Noida, UP.
The additional commissioner of police’s office in Greater Noida, UP.

And so, for eight days, we at Newslaundry have been at the mercy of bureaucrats and babus who have wielded arbitrary tyranny to impede reporting and travel in the National Capital Territory. Their policy is a matter of whim and their accountability almost zilch. This comes at a time when central and state governments are being asked hard questions about their handling of the coronavirus crisis, notably by a section of the Indian media that has not caved in.

The government is often a self-consumed, lethargic creature. It is not in its nature to see errors in its policies and strategies. It is the media that has to fill this space and diagnoses problems that can otherwise become tumorous. Local administrations around the country have helped out the needy only after the media reported on it; two Newslaundry reports alone (here and here) helped deliver essentials to destitute workers in faraway Gujarat and Maharashtra.

And yet, addressing chief minister Adityanath on press freedom is like proselytising to a brick. He has overseen a terrifying deterioration in press and civil freedoms in his tenure: editors are harassed, journalists are arrested, and even tortured. The Uttar Pradesh police also partake in this enterprise. So instead of the chief minister or the additional police commissioner, and in the interest of fairness and press freedom, we address this to the reasonable and sincere district magistrate: Suhas LY, where is our border pass?

Update: The Gautam Budh Nagar administration provided a border pass to Newslaundry on May 6.

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