“Thank you all, friends, for joining us today.”
This is how Chandra Bhushan Kumar, senior deputy election commissioner, greeted the media at 6.35 pm on Wednesday – at a press briefing to highlight counting arrangements for the assembly results on Thursday. However, several mainstream media reporters, who cover the election commission as a beat, said they were not invited.
Many reporters said they only found out about the briefing after they saw a tweet by the All India Radio.
According to reporters, invites to such briefings, even if they are organised at short notice, are usually posted on a WhatsApp group titled "ECI Reporters" – commission spokesperson Sheyphali Sharan is among its administrators. But no such invite came on Wednesday.
Journalists on the group told Newslaundry that their calls and messages asking they were not informed had gone “unanswered”. Newslaundry sent a set of questions to Sheyphali Sharan and this report will be updated once a response is received.
I wonder who was briefed because the beat reporters I know and spoke to were not informed of this. Would have liked to ask, had I got the chance, what the EC's reason was for sending CEOs to Meerut and Varanasi, and not to, say Manipur, where violence broke out and people died? https://t.co/ai6DXovs25— Damini Nath (@DaminiNath) March 9, 2022
Briefing where more officials were present than media ?— Arvind Gunasekar (@arvindgunasekar) March 9, 2022
Why would ECI restrict media access,in fact,media is its best ally to reach nook & corner of the country & to counter all conspiracy theories.
This is doing no good to the âindependent constitutional bodyâ https://t.co/0KWWdRw12Y
“Usually press briefing invites are sent on the ECI WhatsApp group but this time there was no such invite. Only a few media were invited for the press briefing…and the message was sent to [those invited] individually. This has never been the practice,” said Arvind Gunasekar from NDTV.
The event was covered live by DD News, and All India Radio and ANI were also present.
130 Police Observers, 10 special observers deputed. EVMs are kept under 3-layer security, under 24Ã7 CCTV supervision. Serial number of each EVM has been shared with political parties: Election Commission of India ahead of Counting tomorrow #AssemblyElections2022 pic.twitter.com/GdrrjByXyT— ANI (@ANI) March 9, 2022
Talking about invitations, a reporter, who has been on the WhatsApp group for the last few years, said there were two different officers who send WhatsApp messages and emails through the official id. “If the message is sent on the group, then two of them send it separately to reporters also and an email also comes. That’s how releases usually come,” she said. “Today, there was no email, no message on the group, no message separately, no call, nothing. The last email we got was inviting us to the press conference to announce the elections on January 8. There hasn’t been a briefing since then.”
She said the press note released by the EC did not mention the press briefing either. “Usually, press conferences and briefings around the election time are for all beat reporters and anyone with a PIB card can go. During Covid they have restricted it…But it was never a secret.”
A reporter on the group, associated with a leading English daily, said that she only found out about the briefing after the tweet by All India Radio.
“These briefings usually happen ahead of the election counting but none of us beat reporters from national dailies were informed about it. When some of us heard that a special briefing was going to happen, we checked with the spokesperson of the election commission who did not respond.”
She added that other reporters on the group checked with members of the EC but no information was given. “Everyone has registered their protest with the EC because we wanted to know why the media was left out. What kind of precedent are they setting? But we have not received any response.”
Reporters said that there was no clarity on who exactly was invited for the briefing and why some others were left out.
“Even after speaking to some reporters I can tell you that nobody really knows who was invited. We know that Doordarshan, PTI and AIR were there for sure…But this is very weird. During Covid they had restricted access, since too many people could not be in a room at a time, but they would always give us the link to the virtual conference on the group,” a reporter covering the EC as a beat said.
He said while there were a lot of reporters on the WhatsApp group asking questions about why they were not invited, the officials were“maintaining their distance”.
The reporters not invited don’t believe that this was an accident.
“Why wouldn’t they respond to our queries on the group?” a reporter asked. “They are usually active with their responses in the group.” Another reporter said that while the EC could always say that the WhatsApp group isn’t official and that the briefing was organised at the last minute, “it still doesn’t explain why we weren’t told”.
This has serious implications, according to these reporters, as it indicates a lack of transparency.
This came on a day when opposition parties alleged irregularities in counting in Uttar Pradesh.
A reporter said, “Just because they don’t want to take uncomfortable questions, they are using power to block access. The ECI is like a fort. There is no concept of media access even for PIN card holders…To be sure, multiple government agencies and most ministries function that way now. But the ECI is not a government body. This kind of culture of secrecy is baffling.”
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