The story so far: The Government has issued a slew of rules for the media under a new policy on accreditation for journalists. The Central Media Accreditation Guidelines-2022 have outlined the conditions for withdrawal of accreditation if a journalist acts in a manner prejudicial to the country’s security, sovereignty and integrity, friendly relations with foreign states, public order or is charged with a serious cognisable offence. Most of the provisions are drawn from Article 19(2) of the Constitution which prescribes the restrictions to free speech guaranteed to every citizen of the country and are understood to serve as guidelines for the press and media.
- The Government has issued The Central Media Accreditation Guidelines-2022 which outline the conditions for withdrawal of accreditation if a journalist acts in a manner prejudicial to the country’s security.
- The new rules in laying down the conditions for withdrawal of accreditation, serve more as censorship rules rather than guidelines. This is concerning as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked India 142nd among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index 2020.
- In 2018, the PIB, had proposed a Fake News Guidelines under which accreditation could be cancelled if the journalist was peddling content that was ‘fake’. This was seen as a move to counter independent media outlets who had called out political leadership for putting out fake content.
How is this different from the past?
For one, the guidelines prepared by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting are more in the nature of proscriptions rather than prescriptions. In laying down the conditions for withdrawal of accreditation, they serve more as censorship rules rather than guidelines. Previous guidelines were more general in nature and did mention that accreditation would be withdrawn if found to be misused. In the new guidelines, there are 10 provisions under which accreditation to a journalist can be withdrawn.
How are they proposed to be implemented?
As per the guidelines, the Government of India shall constitute a committee called the Central Media Accreditation Committee chaired by the Principal DG, Press Information Bureau (PIB), and comprising up to 25 members nominated by the Government to interpret the guidelines for withdrawal of accreditation.
Why are these guidelines a matter of concern?
In 2020, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked India 142nd among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index 2020. Though freedom of the press is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, the ambit of freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution has been generally interpreted as having laid down the template for a free press in the country with subsequent pronouncements of courts ensuring it. These guidelines, point out experts, carry the threat of coming in the way of the functioning of a free media. Besides, they carry the risk of delegitimising reports, especially of an investigative nature. Any report critical of the Government could now be seen as prejudicial to the interests of the country and it will be left to the interpretation and discretion of the Central Media Accreditation Committee to read the guidelines and decide what is defamatory while denying accreditation to a journalist.
How do journalists get accredited?
A journalist with a minimum of five years as a full-time working journalist can apply for accreditation to the PIB, a process that is completed after a mandatory security check from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Any journalist working with a newspaper which has a daily circulation of 10,000; news agencies with at least 100 subscribers and digital news platforms with 10 lakh unique visitors can apply.
Accreditation helps in access to government offices and to special events and functions organised by the Government of India. Some Ministries like Home and Defence and Finance allow access only to accredited journalists.
Have there been attempts in the past to regulate the media?
Several attempts have been made by successive governments to keep the media in check by proposing guidelines more in the nature of censorship. As recently as 2018, the PIB, which functions under the I&B Ministry, had proposed a Fake News Guidelines under which accreditation could be cancelled if the journalist was seen as peddling content that was fake. This was seen as a move by the Government to counter other independent media outlets who had called out the Government and the political leadership for putting out fake content. The order was withdrawn under pressure. More recently the Government proposed a series of rules under the IT Act to check digital news content.
State Governments like Kerala and Rajasthan had come out with their own versions of proposed rules which were withdrawn under pressure and criticism. The most infamous move to control the press before the advent of private news channels was by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi when he proposed the Defamation Bill in 1988. Under pressure from a unified media and several sections of the public, the Bill was withdrawn.