By Abdul Bari Masoud
New Delhi: Outraged over the imposition of various kinds of restrictions relating to the entry of journalists into Parliament and the Press Gallery, various working journalists’ bodies on Thursday held a protest meeting at the Press Club of India and took out a protest march to press for their demands. They termed the move as authoritarian and attempt to gag the press.
Condemning the restrictions, representatives of the journalists associations asked what the government wants to hide from the public and why it is afraid of the media.
Holding placards, journalists took out a symbolic protest march outside Press Club building and raised slogans including “sansad par censorship nahi chalegi (censorship on parliament will not work)”, “media pe pabandi nahi chalegi (restrictions on media will not work),” “Media ke bina loktantra nahi chalega (democracy will not function without media),” etc.
Speaking at the meeting, senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai underlined that “It’s almost as if the first estate has decided that the fourth estate has to be kept out”.
“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,” Sardesai added.
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.”
Echoing his words, 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,” Pandey said.
Veteran journalist Satsih Jacob said he never experienced such a cruel treatment of journalists in his entire career even during the emergency. Jacob (82 year) holds L&D (long and distinguished) category card but he was denied entry into parliament.
I confronted the Parliament staffer that he is a retired journalist and does not do reporting anymore, but he did not allow me to enter the house saying they have orders from higher authorities not to allow journalists, Jacob told Muslim Mirror.
Protesting journalists said it was not just a protest meeting as the restrictions have played havoc and made the situation much more difficult for media persons in carrying out their professional duties/responsibilities and had led to large-scale retrenchments in the fraternity.
Senior journalist Ashutosh thundered that, “This is a fight to finish; we cannot stop in the middle. It’s not just about journalists, it’s about saving democracy.” He also referred to the sedition cases against journalists in UP, including Siddique Kappan’s imprisonment, as examples of threat to freedom of press.
Restrictions were first imposed for the media at parliament in March 2020 citing the pandemic. When journalists 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.
On November 27, the Press Club of India 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 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 Lok Sabha Speaker and the Rajya Sabha Chairman to ease the restrictions with immediate effect. After the march a memorandum was submitted to the Lok Sabha speaker and Rajya Sabha chairman.
Memorandum of Demands:
1) Restore the entry of all journalists having permanent passes to the Parliament complex and the Press Gallery.
2) Implement the earlier/previous decision taken by the Hon Speaker, Lok Sabha Shri Om Birla, in July 2021 to allow all journalists holding permanent passes into Parliament.
3) Restore entry of veteran journalists into the Central Hall of Parliament.
4) Restore the L&D category for senior and veteran journalists as a mark of honour for their long services in the profession.
5) Reconstitute Press Advisory Committee at the earliest.”
The memorandum further underlined that Journalists are concerned that there is a depressing trend emerging to isolate parliament and parliamentarians from media gaze.
The trend augurs ill of parliamentary democracy and much against the spirit of our parliamentary democracy, it warned.
Opposition parties lent their full support to the journalist fraternity in this fight. A free and impartial media is one of the main pillars of democracy and Trinamool Congress believes in freedom of media. Unfortunately some media houses are not impartial, TMC MP Derek O’ Brien said. The 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 and wrote a letter to the speaker.