On May 6, the Delhi government’s Media Cell removed seven Hindustan Times reporters from a Whatsapp group meant for sharing press notes, including a daily health bulletin.
Vikas Yogi, the Arvind Kejriwal government’s Chief Media Coordinator who removed the reporters, didn’t offer a reason but journalists in the 197-member group whom Newslaundry spoke with said the action was prompted by a May 6 Hindustan Times report questioning the government’s handling of the oxygen crisis. The report, “”, was written by Sweta Goswami, who is among the reporters thrown out of the group.
The report explained that the Kejriwal government had failed to address the paucity of cryogenic tankers to supply oxygen, had no daily oxygen allocation plan for hospitals until a week ago, had no centralised Covid helpline even now, had delayed installing oxygen plants, and called for help from the central government quite late in the day. Its response to the crisis was delayed on almost all fronts, the report concluded, “putting in curbs, going into lockdown, seeking the Centre’s help, and planning for augmentation of beds and oxygen”.
After Sweta and her colleagues were expelled, several reporters in the group demanded an explanation. None has been forthcoming so far. A reporter who has been in the Whatsapp group since 2016, wrote, “The representatives of the government should give an explanation to other reporters in the group. Ignoring questions from multiple reporters, who you also know personally, is insulting.”
Another reporter in the group who spoke on the condition of anonymity said this incident needed to be seen in a larger picture. “It's not just this, we have seen a steady decline in their engagement with journalists,” she said, meaning the Aam Aadmi Party government. “For instance, once the lockdown happened, they didn’t arrange for a mechanism for us to directly question Kejriwal at his press conference. Kejriwal holds a press conference everyday, but how is it a press conference if you’re not taking any questions?”
“It's disgusting and shameless. This is just bad behaviour from a party that claims to be the alternative, it just reflects so poorly on them. We need to look at this from a larger perspective, as to what they are trying to do. Are they trying to intimidate journalists, scare them? What exactly are they aiming for here?” the reporter asked.
A third journalist in the group confirmed that there was no way for them to ask questions of the chief minister since he began recording video briefings last year. “Things were still relatively transparent when the press conference was in person,” she said, “but now there’s no way to pose questions.”
For a brief period, and after repeated requests, questions asked by the reporters in the group were passed onto Kejriwal, the journalist added. That’s no longer the case.
A fourth member of the group said he was disappointed that many more journalists hadn’t spoken up in support of the Hindustan Times reporters.
“There are more than 150 journalists in the group and a lot of them are very senior correspondents. But only six people in total questioned the removal, everyone else remained silent,” he said. “This very clearly shows that nobody wants to upset the government. Perhaps they are afraid that they will stop getting access to information or that their organisation will not back them up if they speak up in support.”
Reporters on the WhatsApp group said the group is "crucial" to their beat of covering the Delhi government.
"For example, the daily health bulletin is always released on the group and doesn't get released by email," one reporter explained. "This has been the case since the pandemic began. The government may update it later on their website or on their Twitter handle, but the full document will be first made available on the WhatsApp group. It's the same with invites to press conferences. It's also an important space for leads, with reporters raising questions directly.”
Another reporter added, “The group is for the health bulletin, press release, press conference dates. And not being in the group does cut access. It's not like these journalists will not be able to access the information at all, but it creates hostility now that they have been taken out of the group.”
Newslaundry reached out to the Hindustan Times journalists who were expelled from the group but they didn’t want to comment at this time. They wouldn’t say why.
The newspaper’s managing editor, Kunal Pradhan, said, “We will continue to cover the Delhi government the same way we have been covering it so far."
Newslaundry also contacted Vikas Yogi as well as Saurabh Bhardwaj, Aam Aadmi Party’s chief spokesperson, and Jasmine Shah, vice chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi, for comment on the removal of the reporters specifically and their government’s engagement with the media generally. The report will be updated if we get a response.
Update: This piece has been updated with more information on why access to the WhatsApp group is important for reporters.
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