“A pattern of isolating Parliament and parliamentarians from media scrutiny.” This was one of the causes of concern listed by journalist bodies in a letter to Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla, asking him to restore full access to the parliament to the media.
The letter, signed by representatives of the Press Club of India, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Association, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and the Working News Cameramen’s Association, was sent on July 13. It followed a deliberation by the bodies and a verbal discussion of the issue with Birla during a pre-monsoon budget press conference this week.
Since March 2020, the media has been restricted from covering the proceedings in the parliament due to the spike in Covid cases at the time. While cases have now fallen, the media’s access was never restored.
Journalists are usually issued passes – sessional, weekly or permanent – to enter the parliament for work. These passes were suspended last March. Journalists can now apply for daily passes, though the criteria to obtain a pass is unclear; they are sometimes issued to those with “personal contacts”, according to some journalists. Access to the Central Hall – where MPs interact with each other and with senior journalists – was suspended in full.
Several journalists told Newslaundry that the press bodies had waited some months before raising the issue formally with Birla, hoping that the restrictions would be lifted. But that didn’t happen, though Birla verbally assured them during the press conference that access would be restored.
Additionally, while the media remained barred, members of parliament were given access to the buildings, in adherence to Covid protocols, along with their entourages and parliament staff.
The letter to Birla flagged the urgency of the issue, considering the monsoon session of the Lok Sabha is scheduled to begin on July 19. A reporter who covers the parliament for a national daily summed it up when they told Newslaundry: “Parliamentary reporting has gone for a toss on the whole.”
The letter also noted that traditionally, journalists are given access to the Press Gallery and the Central Hall. Now, this tradition “has been badly jolted in the name of following Covid restrictions”. The letter urged Birla to “take proactive steps to restore full access for journalists” as well as the restoration of media passes for all categories.
“Parliament is lifeless without the media,” Press Club of India president Umakant Lakhera told Newslaundry. “If people don’t know about deliberations that take place in the parliament, it will invite total anarchy, disconnect, and confusion. If journalists’ entry is censored or restrictions imposed on them, it will affect the flow of information from inside the parliament to the rest of the country.”
Lakhera continued, “If you’re allowing the media, you aren’t doing charity. It is the fundamental duty of journalists, reporters, portals and the media at large to report. And if something unusual is happening, which is against the ethos and sovereignty of the parliament and independence of the media, it is our duty to raise our voice with respect to the chair. Media's role is the blood of democracy. Since we claim we are the largest democracy in the world, we should show the same.”
‘Democracy in danger’
A reporter who covers the parliament for a national daily pointed out that in the absence of media access, it’s “impossible” for them to rely on Lok Sabha TV and Rajya Sabha TV for parliamentary updates.
“This essentially means that if you are watching TV and covering parliament, then you are only covering what the government wants you to cover,” the reporter said. “If you are not present in the house, it’s not possible to report on what the opposition is doing. They [the channels] don’t show the ruckus. All you’ll see is people screaming, or maybe someone showing a placard, but you can't assume things and the context is lost.”
Calling the restrictions on the media “bizarre” and “unprecedented”, the reporter added that the government is clearly not interested in allowing them to return.
“Because if you come in, you see the ruckus and you report the ruckus,” they said. “They wanted to let the agencies put out what they want them to put out, and for everyone else to pick up the news from there. They probably thought they shouldn't have too many people writing too many things...If this becomes written in stone, it’s going to be the end of access all together.”
Journalists also told Newslaundry that the restrictions might set a precedent for media access to state assemblies.
“State assemblies may follow the new tradition of keeping journalists away from parliament,” Lakhera said. “What will happen across the country then? The democracy of India will be in danger.”
Ranjeet Jha, a Delhi-based journalist with Rajasthan newspaper Samachar Jagat, said that with the restrictions, he has to rely on secondary sources for the news.
“I mostly take stories through agencies or through friends who manage to enter the parliament,” he said. “Documents are sent sometimes on Lok Sabha Whatsapp groups but they’re usually sent late. This has become a problem because if you don’t give us information, how will we publish it?”
A copy of the letter was also sent to Dharmanand Kamath, the chairman of the Lok Sabha press advisory committee from 2014 to 2019. Kamath told Newslaundry that a new committee has not been constituted yet, even though it should have been with the formation of the new parliament in 2019. Since the committee hasn’t been functioning since 2019, Kamath said, he had forwarded the letter to the public relations department.
Newslaundry reached out to Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla for comment. This report will be updated if we receive a response.