‘Difficult to report’: Kerala journalists say curbs on media access continue despite ‘CM promise’

Journalists say the state’s cabinet decision to suspend press briefings since 2020 has contributed to the problem.

WrittenBy:Alenjith K Johny
Article image

Despite several letters, meetings with the chief minister and even protests, the Kerala government is yet to ease restrictions on media access to the state secretariat, according to press unions in the state. These restrictions were imposed in the wake of Covid.

Journalists say this is posing a threat to the anonymity of their sources and acting as a barrier to access to information, especially with the state cabinet having suspended its press briefings since 2020.

As part of the restrictions, which were imposed in the wake of Covid, journalists require permission from the minister, secretary or officials they intend to meet for entry to the secretariat. Before the pandemic, journalists holding government-accredited press cards or those affiliated with recognised media organisations had unrestricted access. 

“Should the secretariat be a place which journalists are prohibited from accessing?” Kiran Babu, general secretary of Kerala Union of Working Journalists, told Newslaundry. “How many times will a journalist seek permission? There is a clear risk of permissions being easily denied.” 

The Kerala Union of Working Journalists had held a protest march to the secretariat on June 26 to demand the restoration of journalists’ unrestricted entry. The union’s president, MV Vineetha, said they also met the assembly speaker AN Shamseer in February and handed him a letter with a demand to relax curbs on shooting on the assembly premises. 

“Both print and visual media had permission to shoot question and answer sessions in the assembly and also the proceedings with important discussion before Covid restrictions. Now journalists can only access the video provided by The Information and Public Relations Department. We request to be granted permission to shoot the proceedings,” read the letter.

The KUWJ had handed a letter to the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on February 27 – the press association claimed it had sent three letters to the chief minister between 2020 and 2022. The same day, the union issued another statement, claiming that the chief minister had reportedly promised to consider the demands, including the withdrawal of restrictions on the entry of journalists to the secretariat. 

Former KUWJ president KP Reji said the union had also “engaged in direct conversation with the chief minister” but “we have not received any response”. “Despite our efforts, restrictions persist to this day.” 

One-sided communication 

The Kerala cabinet’s decisions are now communicated through written documents, said Saif Sainu Labdin of Media One, who is a member of KUWJ and has been covering the secretariat for 12 years. “Even if there is a cabinet decision, we are only provided with written information.” 

“Reporting has become increasingly difficult for us,” said Labdin, emphasising that journalists did not encounter such issues under the previous governments or even during the initial two years of the current government. “Now, we have to face numerous hurdles just to meet ministers or IAS officers. There are limitations on how much we can communicate over the phone. We have now begun resorting to virtual meetings… in brief phone conversations, we can hardly obtain any substantial information.” 

He pointed out that direct entry is provided only during press conferences. “Earlier, we had more opportunities to gather data and provide comprehensive information to the public.”

‘Threat to anonymity of sources’ 

“The secretariat serves as a hub of sources, but now we are compelled to disclose exactly whom we are meeting upon entry,” John P Thomas of  newspaper Madhyamam pointed out.  “This poses a significant threat to the anonymity of our sources.” 

Thomas said that earlier, identification was primarily done through press ID cards or government-accredited cards. “But even displaying these credentials is futile now. Despite renewing our cards last year, entry is now only possible with direct permission.” 

In 2013, the Kerala government had introduced accredited identity cards for journalists, ensuring entry to the secretariat being one of its primary uses. That’s no longer the case.  

“In the past, we also had the freedom to enter multiple offices and interact with various officials. But now it has been limited to only those individuals who have granted us permission,” added Thomas, emphasising that the secretariat plays a vital role as a major source of information.   

Saju, a senior journalist with MediaOne and a member of KUWJ, said, “This would affect budding journalists in their efforts to establish reliable sources for reporting…Press briefings used to happen after most of the cabinet meetings, which has now been stopped.”  

KA Shaji, a journalist with digital media outlet South First, said it was concerning that this was happening in Kerala. “Our state has never witnessed such actions before. Kerala is known as a role model for many states in various aspects. It should also set an example for press freedom.” 

B Sreejan, a journalist with digital outlet Fourth, said while “this approach allows the government to exert control over news narratives, a resilient and efficient media can still fulfill their duties within these imposed restrictions”. 

Newslaundry sent emails with queries to the chief minister’s and speaker’s offices. This report will be updated if a response is received.

The CPM government in Kerala has repeatedly been accused of attempts to curb press freedom. Following police searches on the premises of digital outlet Marunadan Malayali last week and the seizure of journalists’ phones, the Kerala high court had pointed out that such action cannot be in violation of the CrPC procedure. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, granted interim protection from arrest to the outfit’s editor Shajan Skaria and noted there was no offence under the SC/ST Act – as alleged by a CPM MLA.

Last month, an Asianet journalist was accused of a criminal conspiracy to defame a Students’ Federation of India leader following her report on a student purportedly clearing his third-semester exams without appearing for them.  

In 2020, the state government had come up with the Kerala Police Act amendment ordinance, leading to allegations that it would curtail freedom of expression. The amendment was subsequently retracted.

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