By Harihar Swarup
Smriti Irani has been media unfriendly since she took over the charge of the sensitive Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Her order a couple of months back was to cancel forthwith the allotment of a small room occupied by the Press Association, oldest organization of accredited journalists to the government of India, in the National Media Centre. The room to the Press Association was allotted years back when Press Information Bureau was in Shastri Bhavan. The successive I & B ministers never thought of throwing out the office bearers of the Association who functioned from the room.
Upset by Irani’s arbitrary order, the Press Association moved the High court and the Minister got a rebuff; association was asked to continue occupying the room and the next hearing of case fixed in May.
Irani also sought to interference in the functioning of Prasar Bharati, an autonomous body but the chairman of the Prasar Bharti, a senior journalist, Surya Prakash, stood his ground and did not succumb to pressure tactic of the Minister.
She transferred most of the senior officers of the PIB. Some of them made representation to the Prime Minister’s office but, out of vengeance, they were also transferred to worse places. I&B ministry sources say these officers were transferred because of political considerations. One wonders what politics these officers can do; their job is to get publicity of the government’s work?
Latest was her “punish—journalist directive” which was withdrawn after Prime Minister’s intervention. The ministry’s directive stipulated that accreditation of journalists peddling “fake news” should be suspended immediately on receipt of a complaint pending an investigation. And, repeat offenders would lose their accreditation permanently.
Clearly, the order from the PM was a snub to Irani who until past mid-night was stridently engaged on social media, defending and explaining her ministry’s directive. Sources said that the PMO was not consulted and was unaware of Irani’s directive until it became public. “A fuming Prime Minister told his office to direct the I&B ministry to withdraw the directive with immediate effect”, according to an official.
The Prime Minister, sources said, was annoyed with the “timing and tone” of the directive. “The feeling was that this is a time when the ministry should have been working with the media given the Dalit protest and the CBSE examination goof up. Instead of protecting government image, the I&B ministry dented it”, sources said.
Irani from whose mind the idea had sprung fully armed and ready for trouble climbed down and offered to engage with media bodies and organizations to check fake news and “uphold ethical journalism”. Evidently, the gesture was merely conciliatory, acknowledging the embarrassing reality that her step has backfired.
With general election knocking at the door, her announcement amounted to a barefaced attempt to muzzle the press and chill dissent. One wishes the Minister had consulted some of her colleagues. That might have saved her some of embarrassment.
The I&B ministry also undermined the Press Information Bureau, which has a standardized process of giving accreditation based on organizational credential. Particularly irksome was the ministry’s strategy of monopolizing the right to suspend to itself, while imposing the News Broadcasters Association and the Press Council of India, the problematic responsibility of defining fake news. Irani’s argument that these two organizations, and not the government, were arbiter, is a specious one. As the Editors’ Guild of India pointed out, the manner in which the Press Council and the accreditation panel have been constituted, raises question of fairness and transparency.
Irani does not stand alone in this hall of shame. Most recently, the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan brought an ordinance protecting serving and former judges, magistrates and public servants from investigation without prior sanction, and barring the media from reporting until the investigation was complete. All these interventions had to be amended and withdrawn and the CM had to eat humble pie.
Rajiv Gandhi , who had biggest-ever majority—404—brought the Defamation Bill in 1988, which sought to control the fall out of Bofors by targeting “criminal imputation” and “scurrilous writings”. The bill faced powerful opposition from the country’s leading journalists and trade unions. Despite insisting for weeks that he was convinced of the need for the bill, Rajiv ultimately buckled and withdrew the bill.
The Bihar Press Bill was brainchild of the then Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra. The Bill sought to amend IPC Section 292 and Cr.PC Section 455 to give the state government authority to prevent publication of “grossly indecent or scurrilous matter or matters intended for blackmail”. It made offence cognizable and non-bailable, thereby, empowering police to arrest journalist and have them tried by an executive magistrate—worse than what was applicable for murders. The Bihar Press Bill was withdrawn after a year following protests from media and opposition. (IPA Service)