Journalists to Boycott Sitharaman’s Budget Dinner Over Entry Curbs

For the first time in history, the Nirmala Sitharaman-led Finance Ministry has decided to not allow journalists, including those with Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation, to enter the North Block without ‘prior appointment’.

A clarification issued by the office of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that a procedure has been put in place for "streamlining and facilitating" the entry of media persons inside the Ministry of Finance and "no ban is in place" on the entry of media persons in the Ministry.

As a mark of protest, over 100 journalists have decided to boycott the annual post-budget dinner that is scheduled to be hosted by Nirmala Sitharaman at 8 pm on 12 July at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi, sources close to the matter told The Quint.

Journalists List Concerns and Consequences of the Restrictions

“INFORMAL DICTAT TO BUREAUCRATS TO NOT MEET JOURNALISTS”

A senior journalist covering the Finance Ministry for almost 9 years, on condition of anonymity, said the restriction can also be seen as an “informal diktat” to the bureaucrats to not interact with journalists. He said, “Nirmala Sitharaman has not formally said that the officials cannot meet us. But if the finance minister says she doesn’t want reporters around, the bureaucrats will not risk giving appointments to any of us.”

Also Read: Withdraw ‘Gag’ on Media Freedom: Editors Guild to Finance Minister

“HINDERS FLOW OF INFORMATION”

Sitharaman has proposed having daily press conferences with the journalists but the journalist says, “A press conference is usually a one-way conversation. Sometimes, journalists need off-record briefings to seek clarifications on a policy. This (the new policy) hinders flow of conversation between the government and the journalists.”

He also said that this move sets a dangerous precedent for most other ministries under the Modi government to stop interactions with journalists.

“MIGHT MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO PROTECT THE IDENTITY OF SOURCES WITHIN MINISTRY”

Another finance ministry journalist from a leading publication, who refused to be named, said the immediate consequence of restricting journalists would mean several obstructions in the way of seeking urgent clarifications from the ministry since seeking appointments in government offices is usually a “tedious process.”

He added, “The move has the potential of making it difficult to protect the identity of your sources within the ministry.”

He said, "A lot of times there are people within the ministry who act as whistleblowers who don't want you to divulge their names. With this move, the concerned person will have to call the reception to facilitate your entry and technically you cannot meet any other person apart from him/her. So it becomes very easy for someone within the ministry to track down your source.”

What Did Finance Ministry Clarify

After Sitharaman met a few senior editors of leading publications on Tuesday, 9 July, her office tweeted a clarification saying “that no ban is in place.”

"Entry of media persons, including those holding PIB Accredited card, will be on the basis of prior appointment. No other restrictions have been imposed on their entry inside MOF. North Block. The media persons can seek an appointment with the officer/s to meet them. Media persons holding a PIB card will not require a separate entry pass after the appointment is fixed," the clarification said.

"This is to clarify that no ban is in place on the entry of media persons in Ministry of Finance. North Block... These procedures are part of overall efforts being made by the ministry to make reporting for media persons hassle free and convenient," it added.

The clarification further said that "As per the directions of the Hon'ble FM adequate arrangements have been made for media persons outside Gate no.2, North Block in the form of an air-conditioned waiting room where at regular intervals, water, tea. coffee etc are being provided. Facilities for comfortable seating and charging of electronic equipment have also been provided".

What Had Been the Norms so Far

North Block, the seat of Finance Ministry, had only been out of bounds for journalists during the pre-budget quarantine period for about two months to maintain secrecy. The curb would be lifted on the first day after the presentation of the budget.

However this time, the order restricting entry, issued by the the Budget division in the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, was not lifted after the budget was presented on 5 July.

The officers of Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which guards the ministry, are allowing entry of journalists only if a ministry official sends a written note giving name(s) of the media person to them for the purpose of entry.

While journalists without PIB accreditation anyway needed permission from an official to allow them entry, the one holding the card had free entry without a special pass.

PIB, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, grants accreditation to full time journalists with minimum five years experience, after a strenuous security verification undertaken by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Having a PIB accreditation is a valid entry into all government buildings barring the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of External Affairs and offices of investigative and regulatory agencies.

A regular Finance Ministry reporter (name cannot be divulged to protect identity) who has been covering the beat since the last 4 years for a news wire agency said such restrictions not only “dilutes the purpose of having a PIB accreditation but also discourages young journalists to apply for one”.

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