Covering Parliament during a pandemic

Lok Sabha in session on September 17, 2020. Photo: LSTV via PTI  

What strikes you the most when you enter Parliament now is emptiness. There are no milling crowds, no chatter, and no reporters tailing parliamentarians.

Strict rules have been put in place to ensure safety. To make sure that there are no big crowds, the number of reporters has been severely limited by both Houses of Parliament. The list of news organisations that are allowed inside the Parliament premises has been trimmed. Many regional and smaller organisations are barred. On any given day, there are not more than 35 reporters allowed inside the premises. The Rajya Sabha has come up with a roster allocating different dates to each organisation. On the days one doesn’t figure in the list, one has no choice but to watch the live transmission from miles away. No photographers, except from the news agency PTI, have been provided access. No television cameras are allowed except Doordarshan, ANI, Rajya Sabha TV, and Lok Sabha TV. And these camerapersons too are allowed only up to a certain point.

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On the days one does get to attend Parliament, the rule is that reporters must exit the building minutes after the session ends. Entry and exit timings are meticulously noted down by the security staff. This means we cannot, in the corridors, accost politicians who have been avoiding us, stop them as they wait for their cars to ask for a few minutes for a briefing, or hang around at party offices to listen to anecdotes or analysis that could help us piece together a political puzzle. You check in, you check out.

A few privileged senior reporters used to have access to the Central Hall, where parliamentarians usually rest. The Central Hall is now closed to everyone except sitting MPs.

The media gallery overlooking the Rajya Sabha is equally desolate. Each reporter sits more than six feet apart from the next. And MPs, who in pre-pandemic days used to sit in the chamber a floor below, now sit in the galleries next to the one reserved for the media. With MPs as close neighbours, reporters cannot afford to make any wisecracks, or roll their eyes at certain speeches or drift off to sleep during a soporific speech. You can get caught easily, as I was. A senior leader called to tell me very politely later, “It seems like you were tired and shut your eyes.” One of the key symptoms of COVID-19 is fatigue. The fatigue of the pandemic has hit Parliament too, which looks tired and worn out.

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And the Parliament canteen, known for its so-called inexpensive food, is also practically shut. So, even if you feel like nibbling something after sitting through four hours of parliamentary proceedings, all you can get now is a packet of biscuits. And in case you need pre-packaged food, you have to book it a day in advance.

Covering Parliament is as much about what happens inside the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha as what happens outside them. It is a one-stop destination for political news. But today, all reporters can file is a straitjacketed news copy. To bring in that extra element, we attend debriefing sessions via Zoom and chase sources with persistent WhatsApp messages. If we are fortunate enough and willing to set aside our fears, a few brave MPs are willing to meet us outside Parliament too.

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 10:19:09 AM |

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