“They haven’t even initiated the process yet,” said Umakant Lakhera. “So, the apprehension has come to people’s minds.”
Lakhera is president of the Delhi-based Press Club of India, a consortium of journalists that has been vociferously protesting the non-renewal of their press accreditation cards issued by the Press Information Bureau.
These cards grant journalists security clearance, access to ministries without prior appointment or registration, access to the media workroom and PIB library at the National Media Centre, and permit attendance at events and conferences involving the prime minister, president and vice-president. Card-holders also have access to certain health facilities and railway fare concessions.
The cards are renewed every year, the process spanning November and December. Last month, however, journalists were told their cards were valid until January 31, 2022 – with no clarity on when the one-year renewal would take place.
In a letter to I&B minister Anurag Thakur on Wednesday, the Press Club and other journalist bodies said the decision was “heedlessly and needlessly aimed at suppressing coverage of news and views gathering, controlling freedom of press and putting undue pressure on correspondents and photographers.”
Noting that no official reason had been given for the stalling of the renewal process, the letter demanded Thakur’s “immediate intervention” to extend the validity of their cards until December 31, 2022. The letter was also sent on behalf of the Press Association, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Delhi Union of Journalists, and Working News Cameramen’s Association.
Lakhera said, “Because of the way the government works it is coming to people’s mind that there is a hidden agenda to keep journalists out.”
Apprehensions about non-renewal have been compounded by the fact that the entry of journalists to the Parliament has been curbed since the beginning of the pandemic last year. Even when cases dipped and public spaces opened up, .
A missing committee
Journalists are eligible for these accreditation cards if they meet one of two criteria: either five years of experience as a full-time journalist or 15 years of experience as a freelancer. This is applicable to media persons in Delhi and its vicinity: Noida, Greater Noida, Faridabad, Bahadurgarh, Ghaziabad, and Gurugram.
According to the official index displayed on PIB’s website, there are around 2,500 accredited journalists as of 2021. However, in a to a question in the Lok Sabha last July, I&B minister Thakur had said that 7,831 applications for PIB accreditation were granted between 2018-2020.
So, who grants the accreditation to journalists?
A central press accreditation committee, as cited by Thakur. The CPAC is constituted by the government of India and has working journalists as part of it.
But India currently does not have a CPAC. The term of the previous committee expired in March 2021. Its term was then extended by three months since Covid cases were spiking at the time. But a new committee was never constituted.
Frustrated, the letter sent to Thakur on Wednesday warned that the “simmering unrest among accredited media persons could take the form of protests”.
“Having a PIB card means you can walk into any ministry and meet people...You can walk into any office and you don’t need any additional passes,” said an accredited journalist who did not want to be named. “If you don’t have a PIB card, you have to get an appointment...Lots of times, they won’t give you an appointment because no one wants to meet officially.”
The card’s access to ministries also means that journalists don’t need to “register” their names with a date and time during meetings, which helps safeguard sources within the ministries.
“PIB is sort of like a pass that says we know your background and that you’re not a security threat and we’ll allow you to come on board,” the journalist explained. “If they get rid of this facility, you’re essentially not allowed access to people where information could come out. Anyway, officials don’t talk to you on record anymore.”
They added: “In case they don’t extend the current PIB card, this means no one will have access.”
CK Nayak, the president of the Press Association – which calls itself the “only association of accredited journalists in India” – told Newslaundry that the renewal of the card is supposed to be a routine procedure.
“There’s nothing secret in a democracy,” he said. “If they have a reason for the delay, they should come up and say it. This card recognises you as a journalist and is given after police verification. The concept is an established practice done all over India.”
He also brought up the access to facilities allowed by a PIB card-holder through the central government health scheme.
“Journalism is not a formal sector,” Nayak said. “Health benefits, especially during a pandemic, are important. Without a PIB card, the CGHS card is not valid.”
Newslaundry reached out to senior officials at the PIB for comment. An official said, on the condition of anonymity, that there was “no need for concern” and that the delay was because the guidelines for accreditation were being “revised”. The official said the process of renewal would “begin soon”.
Update: CK Nayak is the president of the Press Association, not the general secretary. This has been corrected.
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