“Media ke bina loktantra nahi chalega (democracy will not function without media),” “media pe pabandi nahi chalegi (restrictions on media will not work),” “sansad par censorship nahi chalegi (censorship on parliament will not work)”: these were some of the slogans raised by journalists as they marched outside the Press Club of India in Delhi on a rainy Thursday afternoon. They were trying to raise their long-standing demand for restoration of access to parliament.
Restrictions were first imposed for the media at parliament in March 2020 citing the pandemic. But the curbs on journalists’ entry and access remain even as the number of cases has dipped and most public places and government offices have reopened.
When mediapersons approached the Lok Sabha speaker in July﹘after months of a wait for the issue to be resolved﹘they were assured that the restrictions would be lifted, but the demand remains unfulfilled and a lottery system is in place instead.
“If you cut off journalists from parliament, it is going to result in the information supply line being cut,” said Umakant Lakhera, president of the Press Club of India. “Journalists are being treated in an undignified manner. Stopping journalists from covering parliament is preventing them from performing their duty.”
Journalists also demanded that entry to the central hall should be restored for veteran mediapersons and the L&D (long and distinguished) category, and the Press Advisory Committee must be reconstituted at the earliest.
The march outside the Press Club of India in Delhi.
Journalists from associations such as the Press Club of India, Editors Guild of India, Delhi Union of Journalists, Press Association, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Working News Cameraman’s Association, Indian Journalists Union, Kerala Union of Working Journalists, and Kerala Press Club had raised the issue as the winter session began on November 29.
A resolution was passed by these bodies, appealing to the union government and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and Chairman of Rajya Sabha to ease the restrictions with immediate effect. A memorandum was submitted to the Lok Sabha speaker and Rajya Sabha chairperson on Thursday.
“It’s almost as if the first estate has decided that the fourth estate has to be kept out,” said senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. “You’re denying us access and that lessens the vibrancy of our democracy. The message goes out that parliament is some exclusive privilege club available only to MPs and not to citizens or representatives of citizens or journalists who are an integral part of our constitutional democracy.”
Vineeta Pandey, president of the Indian Women’s Press Corps, asked why journalists are not being allowed to cover parliament when the government is “removing restrictions, opening cinema halls, allowing international flights, and developing tourism”. She said this was not just a curb on the media but also the opposition.
“Through TV, we can hear the government’s voice but the opposition’s voice is not being heard. By stopping journalists, you are restricting their voices too...If there’s a message they want to give, they should be clear and say what it is.”
On November 27, the Press Club had written an open letter to political parties about the restrictions, appealing to them to take note of the issue. “We are concerned that there is a depressing trend emerging to isolate parliament and parliamentarians from media gaze.”
Journalists have also expressed apprehensions about the impact of such restrictions on journalism, and mediapersons who cover parliamentary proceedings.
“This is the parliament, not a farmhouse where people will come only according to your wishes,” said Lakhera. “If this happens here, it will set a precedent for state assemblies in Kerala, Maharashtra, etc. This is unprofessional. The lottery system is such that if you go to parliament to do a story today, you are told your lottery has come for 15 days later.”
The PCI president said journalists, especially from the regional press, have been severely impacted by Covid, and if those hired to cover parliament are denied access, they could lose their job.
The journalists said it was not just a protest meeting. “This is a fight to finish, we cannot stop in the middle. It’s not just about journalists, it’s about saving democracy,” said Ashutosh, editorial director of Satya Hindi. He also referred to the sedition cases against journalists in UP, including Siddique Kappan’s imprisonment, as examples of threat to freedom of press.
The Trinamool Congress, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha and Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, and Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha and Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury also lent their support to the protest.
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