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DO WE NEED THAT PLASTIC CARD?

Press freedom is best secured by journalists refusing government accreditation or perhaps, even better, the government scrapping it

It was an eventful April 3, 2018, when Union Cabinet Minister of Textiles and Information & Broadcasting Smriti Irani, started a veritable bushfire by issuing an order to check ‘fake news’ by threatening to pull the accreditation of any journalists falling foul. Thankfully, before the fire could even spread to ‘presswali gali’ (where lots of media houses operate from in New Delhi), the Prime Minister himself poured cold water on the order. Twitter couldn’t even get a proper hashtag trending, and a public relations disaster for the government was averted.

While familiar chants of ‘save press freedom’ were beginning to echo from newspaper and television rooftops, it was led by a very specific set of journalists – the accredited. They were the ones who were going to be directly affected by this order.

So, who are these ‘accredited’ journalists? It makes sense to give a low-down, for those not in the know. Since we are familiar with the caste system in India, ‘accredited’ journalists sit right at the top of the Indian journalism caste pole. It literally means that the central or state government officially recognises you as a journalist and gives you a wee plastic identity card that says so. The central government accreditation is through the Press Information Bureau (PIB) and state governments accredit through their Information Departments. Journalists are accredited after proving experience of working full time for five years with a registered new organisation or proving a 15-year long and thorough track record as a freelancer or for ‘distinguished lifetime’ service.

Irani’s order applied to the creamy layer of the upper caste, the 2,263 journalists who are accredited as of 2018 by the PIB, in and around Delhi, principally covering national affairs. And if the order was considered in spirit to be enforced by the various state government accreditation departments, the number would go up to about 25,000-30,000 journalists.

Does it sound like a lot of journalists? Not really. There are about 1 lakh plus registered newspapers, then some television news channels and now a multitude of digital news outlets. Assuming you need at least five journalists to make a newsroom, you are looking at about 5 lakh plus journalists just in newspapers. So, the numbers potentially affected by the order were far less than 10 per cent of the big picture.

So, what does this accreditation get a journalist? In theory, it works as a kind of identity card/security pass enabling easy access to the parliament, state legislatures, legislators, government events and almost all government officials and offices. In practice, it comes loaded with a bunch of fringe benefits. For PIB journalists, read – CGHS health cover for the journalist and dependants, concessional rail travel for journalist and dependants, and even dedicated car parking in the Parliament premises. State governments offer even more benefits, sometimes benevolent incumbents even allot valuable real estate to accredited journalists at throwaway prices. But perhaps the biggest benefit of all is – access. Knowing how India works, access is literally everything. (Accreditation for identity/security purposes is common in many democracies with a vibrant media, but direct fringe benefits to individual accredited journalists is found only in a few, one of them is India.)

If you have ever worked in a news organisation, it is often easy to spot this elite layer. They are ‘always-in-the-know’ of everything and always have the editor’s ear. Thankfully, they are relatively few in number because, the accreditation slots are allocated to news organisations based on their circulation or viewership numbers. There is thus always a mad scramble for organisations to get the maximum number of accreditation slots, using ‘influence to squeeze extra slots’, and maximum number of journalists vie for a few of these coveted slots allotted by management, which often means cosying up to management. All the benefits, access and the editor’s ear, anyone? Worse, journalists who land a coveted accredited slot, often don’t switch jobs for years, because a change in organisation leads to loss of accreditation. They often wait years for ‘accredited’ openings in other organisations and deals are struck with managements for them.

Should news organisations, often preaching impartiality and objectivity, access this accreditation system? No. Has any organisation tried being aloof of this system? Apparently a leading business daily when it launched in the late 2000s, debated this issue at length as its founding editor was US-educated and wanted a rigorous code of ethics. They agonised over this aplenty before caving in as their journalists said applying for access to visit Parliament or government offices every single time would be a huge drain on time. Today, even digital news outlets are clamouring for the PIB to issue their journalists accreditation.

Should the government be in the business of accrediting journalists? Quite simply, a bigger nay, even though the whole system is apparently based on metrics and merit. It is a standing joke in the media – when was the last big ‘newsbreak’ by an accredited journalist that reflected a government in poor light? There are sincere journalists, who use their PIB card as nothing more than a ‘Parliament car pass that makes life easy in the Delhi summer’, but even they struggle to cross the ‘laxman rekha’. It is hard to see a day when a government willingly gives up the joy of seeing journalists queue up for access and its allied benefits.

There probably was no journalist who walked into the PIB on the morning of April 3, 2018, saying, ‘Thanks, but I want my journalistic freedom’ and tossed the card back. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, could have done ‘press freedom’ greater service by scrapping accreditation.

(The writer is a former journalist, who today prefers to access remote mountain trails in the Himalayas)

This article was first published in Newslaundry.