Explanation: stricter accreditation policy for journalists and concerns

The government has released a new journalist accreditation policyintroducing an entire section on the reasons that may lead to the suspension of accreditation.

What changed?

The new policy, prepared by the Department of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) and issued by the Press Information Bureau, sets guidelines on how PIB accreditation will be granted to eligible journalists. Currently, there are 2,457 GDP-accredited journalists in the country.

For the first time, it specifies the conditions that can lead to the loss of the journalist’s accreditation. If a journalist “acts in a manner prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, state security, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in connection with contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”, his accreditation may be revoked.

The previous policy, issued in 2013, stated in the general conditions of accreditation that accreditation “shall be withdrawn as soon as the conditions on which it was granted cease to exist. Accreditation is also subject to withdrawal/suspension if it is found to have been misused”.

The new policy has ten points that can lead to accreditation being revoked, including if a journalist is charged with a “serious and identifiable offence”.

What concerns does this raise?

One of the main responsibilities of a journalist is to expose wrongdoings, whether committed by public officials, politicians, big businessmen, corporate groups or others in power. This could sometimes lead these powers to try to intimidate journalists or prevent the dissemination of information.

A common tool used by powerful people is filing defamation suits against journalists and media platforms. Now, defamation has become one of the provisions that can lead to the cancellation of accreditation.

Journalists often report on policy issues and decisions that the government may not like. The provision of the new policy on acting “in a manner prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, to the security of the state, to friendly relations with foreign states, to the public order, decency or morality” or “incitement to offence” may be subjective. The policy says nothing about who will decide whether a journalist’s conduct violates any of these conditions. Any investigative reporting on sensitive issues could be considered a violation of any of these provisions.

Who is eligible for accreditation?

There are several categories. But a journalist must have at least five years of professional experience as a full-time journalist or cameraman in a news organization, or a minimum of 15 years as a freelancer to be eligible. Senior journalists, with over 30 years of experience and over the age of 65, are also eligible.

Accreditation is only available to journalists living in the Delhi NCR area.

A newspaper or periodical must have a minimum daily circulation of 10,000 copies and news agencies must have at least 100 subscribers. Similar rules apply to foreign news outlets and foreign journalists. The policy introduced a provision that journalists working with digital news platforms are also eligible, provided the website has a minimum of 10 lakh unique visitors per month.

Accreditation requests are reviewed by a central press accreditation committee headed by the DG, GDP. After a journalist’s request, a mandatory security check is carried out by the Ministry of the Interior, which includes a police check of the journalist’s residence.

How does accreditation help?

The policy mentions that accreditation does not “confer any official or special status” on journalists, but only recognizes them as “professional working journalists”.

There are three advantages. First, in certain events where VVIPs or dignitaries such as the President, Vice President or Prime Minister are present, only accredited journalists are allowed to report from the premises. Second, accreditation ensures that a journalist is able to protect the identity of their sources. An accredited journalist does not have to disclose who he intends to meet when entering the offices of Union Ministries, as the accreditation card is “valid for entry into buildings under the zone security department of the MHA (Ministry of the Interior)”.

Third, accreditation brings certain benefits to the journalist and his or her family, such as inclusion in the central government health scheme and certain concessions on train tickets.

Have governments tried to put similar curbs earlier?

Several governments tried, but usually had to back down.

In 2018, during its first term, the NDA government introduced the Fake News Guidelines, proposing that a journalist’s accreditation could be permanently suspended and even revoked, if media regulators deem the journalist spread fake news. The order has been withdrawn.

In 2017, the Rajasthan government introduced a bill to protect state officials from “libelous and unsubstantiated accusations”. It was a maximum prison sentence of two years and a fine. The bill was withdrawn.

In 2012, under UPA rule, Congress leader Meenakshi Natarajan wanted to present a private member’s bill to Lok Sabha, which proposed the establishment of a media regulatory authority with the power to ‘ban or suspend coverage of an event or incident that “could pose a threat to national security from foreign or internal sources”. In the end, Natarajan did not introduce the bill and his party walked away is also distant.

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose government has been rocked by allegations of corruption, proposed a libel bill in 1988 which “would ensure that the publication of imputations falsely alleging the commission of offenses by any person constitute an offence”. The bill, which was eventually withdrawn, proposed a prison sentence of up to five years for defamation.

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