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A journalist’s right to loiter

The intent of the Finance Ministry seems to be to know which official met which journalist and when
Any reporter worth her beat will tell you that the fine art of loitering is a very useful tool in journalism. It is cultivated with patience and honed with experience. Even before the notebook and pen are fished out for a briefing, it is the wait in corridors that helps ‘beat’ reporters forge relationships with the powers-that-be. When journalists loiter around a Ministry, they get to speak to a range of people — the support staff who fetch tea for the Minister’s guests, the people meeting the Minister, and the senior officials in the Ministry. Sometimes, eye contact with an official allows a journalist access to the official. We journalists earn our spurs when the support staff of a Minister recognise us enough to share driblets of information that others don’t hear. Familiarity with the ecosystem comes from pottering about. So, it came as a shock when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made permanent a diktat which was meant to be temporary — namely, keeping the media out as deliberations on the Budget were under way — and said that a procedure has been put in place for “streamlining and facilitating” the entry of media persons inside the Ministry of Finance. She later clarified that there was “no ban in place” for journalists, including those accredited by the Government of India, to enter the Ministry, but that journalists cannot meet officials without prior appointment. This is an unfortunate development. It is the fundamental right of the citizens of this country to be informed about the government, and there are professionals trained in the dissemination of news. No journalist walks into an official’s office unless she is allowed. At best, journalists keep a watchful eye on the visitors walking in with appointments and even throw a question at them as they came out of their appointments. Journalists do this after making calls to their sources to check the visitor’s list. The intent of the Ministry seems to be to know which official met which journalist and when. One of the tricks of the profession is to call on the information officer and on that pretext meet the source. But what the Finance Ministry wants to do is to track down critical news to the source. Often, officials are willing to part with information only if they are not named in the report. The Ministry’s decision will not only curtail press freedom, but also prevent officials from revealing any information to journalists they trust. As the Editors Guild said, there is “no dispute with the Ministry that journalists should behave with restraint and responsibility while enjoying their access to the Finance Ministry” but “a blanket order is not the answer”. It is a pity that the Ministry has issued such an order, especially at a time when India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index has fallen by two ranks to 140 out of 180 countries.

Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/a-journalists-right-to-loiter/article28567396.ece

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