Has this government really clammed up?

IN Special Reports | 03/03/2015
Did reporting government just get harder under the NDA? No access to cabinet notes, no leaky babudom, beat ministers not talking, lobbyists banished from corridors of power.
In a HOOT special, NIVEDITA KHANDEKAR talked to 50 journalists to probe the change. (Pix: South Block, which houses the PMO, from oneindia.com.)
 
 
While others worry about the ease of doing business, The Hoot worries about the ease of reporting on the Modi government's performance.  We present a survey in which working journalists talk about coping with more restricted access to ministers and bureaucrats in the central government.
 
 
Within days of the Narendra Modi government being sworn in 10 months ago, journalists  had started cribbing about how ‘nobody is talking, yaar’ and how the PM was keeping the media at bay.
 
By last August -- when Modi had already dumped the usual media contingent to take  only select journalists from state-owned DD and a news agency when he went to Japan -- the political-toon 'So Sorry' of Headlines Today/Aaj Tak group even came up with a cartoon film showing how Modi had been increasing his distance from the media on the basis of ‘No news is good news’. 
 
By September, Modi had still not held a press conference but, as he did during his Lok Sabha campaign, chose to engage with people directly through social media, mainly through his Facebook page and Twitter handles, unceremoniously bypassing the mainstream media. 
 
This prompted top editors to ask Modi to “enlarge access and engage more actively” with journalists. The Editors Guild of India said, a “top-down, one-way interaction in a country with limited internet connectivity and technological awareness cannot be the only answer for large masses of readers, viewers, surfers and listeners. Debate, dialogue and discussion are essential ingredients of a democratic discourse.”  
 
Getting quotes difficult but not impossible
 
This survey is an endeavor to find out if what top editors called a “top down approach” or a “one-way street” continues and if the picture is really as bleak as is being painted? I spoke to 50 print media journalists covering the central government, its different ministries and departments, all based in Delhi. (See list of newspapers towards the end). Most respondents were interviewed in December 2014 and January 2015 with very few in February 2015.
 
The outcome is reassuring. In the sense that even when they admitted there was a “conscious effort to block information”, a majority of the journalists said, “it is difficult yet not impossible to dig out information or that precious quote from the minister/officer concerned.” They criticised the kind of stories that are being written, with many of them dismissing these stories as low-hanging fruit.
 
Shemin Joy, a journalist with the Deccan Herald, said: “There is a fear among officers about revealing even that information which is not negative in media parlance. Sources also have reservations about giving inputs to friendly journalists. The Modi government has clearly sent out a message that they are not keen on entertaining the media. But at the same time, journalists also should share the blame. Reporters, including myself, should think whether we are putting in that extra effort, taking the extra two steps to get the news.” 
 
Findings 
 
Fifty journalists answered six questions:  
 
1. What is the difference that you have noticed about people/officers talking freely pre-Modi and post-Modi?
 
Thirteen (26%) said officials, secretaries, joint secretaries, directors etc were still talking. 
Twenty said, they were “talking but with difficulty” (40%)
Seventeen said they were “not talking at all” (34%).
In other words, 74 per cent had sensed a clamming up.

2. Is your beat minister talking as freely as the earlier one?
 
Eighteen (36%) said beat ministers were “talking”;
Sixteen (32%) said “talking but with difficulties”;
Another sixteen (32%) said “not talking at all”.  
So 64 per cent reported that beat ministers were talking less freely or not at all.

3. Is your beat minister talking ‘off the record’
 
Sixteen (32%) said beat ministers talked “off the record”; 
Fifteen (30%)said they “talked but with great difficulties”;
And most of them, 19, (38%) said they “didn’t talk, even off the record”.
Again, the majority, 68 per cent, felt the beat minister had dried up substantially as a source.  
 
4. Are your sources talking as freely as earlier?
 
Seventeen (34%) said their sources “were talking as freely as earlier”;
Twenty-three (46%) said, sources did talk but “but with lot of cajoling, coaxing etc.”
Only 10 (20%) said their sources had “dried up, not talking at all.”
Combining the last two, a worrying 66 per cent journalistssaid their sources were not opening up easily, or not opening up at all. 


5. (Then) how are you doing stories these days
 
Or, on how they were managing to write stories nonetheless: 
 
Almost half -- 23 (46%) -- said, “Stories ho kahan rahee hai aaj-kal?”  (where are the stories?) It is mostly pro-Modi or pro-government stories”.
Rest -- 27 (54%) -- said they were tapping not just their sources, but also various other options such as other stakeholders, information available on the websites etc.   

6. Is there any way in which this lot is an improvement over the last one
 
We as journalists observe a given government as an establishment, irrespective of the party in power. This question was to find out, as a government, how this lot fared.
 
Sixteen (32%) respondents said, they noticed “visible changes” in the manner in which officials worked/were present etc;
Fifteen (30%) said, “there was no change at all”
Nineteen (19%) either did not say anything or said, “It is too early to judge”.

So what are the changes that journalists have felt? 
 
The first and the foremost: Cabinet notes are not available. Earlier it was a free-for-all. Neither cabinet meeting agendas nor inter-ministerial exchanges are coming out, not before and not after the cabinet meetings, except what the government wants to come out. 
 
One example is the decision to shut down the Planning Commission and replace it with the NITI Aayog. “RTI queries revealed later that this decision was cleared by the cabinet two days before – August 13 – but it took the Prime Minister to announce it on Independence Day from the ramparts of the Red Fort. None of us could bring that out before,” said a journalist who regularly uses RTI for big-ticket stories.
 
When it came to officials talking – secretaries, joint secretaries, directors et al, in short the entire leaky babudom – there is a visible fear psychosis. Generally, there is an increased level of awareness, people are careful not to speak on phone and if they speak at all, prefer landlines to mobiles phones.
 
When journalists do manage to get people to talk, they get plenty of information but nothing worthwhile. For instance, there is a lot of talk about ‘Smart Cities’ but so far, the government has not produced a concept note.
 
“The whole government seems to be PMO driven. There aren’t many internal differences between the government’s arms,” observed one senior reporter from a mainstream newspaper.
 
Varghese George, the Hindu's National Affairs and Political Editor, said: “This government appears more determined, purposeful (compared with UPA). It is also taking swift decisions. But certain things are bound to come out. And they should.”
 
He elaborates with an example about the Land Acquisition ordinance. Around December end, contrarian voices started coming out from within the government. Stories about the various clauses that were deemed problematic were carried by several media organisations, including The Hindu, showing finally how differing voices are coming out from within the government and of course other stake holders.

“There are multiple pressure points, lots of stake holders will try to influence decision making and there is generally bound to be chaos, but this same process ensures that these voices are heard. But in the absence of inadequate internal debate, it is happening at the cost of the democratic process,” he said.
 
The pink papers are the most affected. Earlier, there used to be reams of paper landing on their desks. Corporate lobbyists and big company officials could all be found loitering in the ministries. “The new government has ensured no entry to any such persons, there is a severe crunch of paper flow,” said a journalist from one of the business papers. (See postscript.)
 
Those covering political beats and different ministries relied heavily on ‘favouring someone’ ministers or ‘dial-a-quote’ officials. “Now this celebrity access journalism has stopped. If you are a practitioner of good old style journalism, you still get information,” said an award-winning journalist from a mainstream newspaper. 
 
Pankaj Vohra, Managing Editor, the Sunday Guardian, said: “The job of a journalist is to get information, not to blame the government for his inefficiency. If you can’t find (information) you are not worth your salt.”
 
The innovative use of social media has seen news breaking first on Modi’s Twitter handle rather than through a PIB release or a journalist. The best example was when US President Barack Obama was to visit Delhi as chief guest at the Republic Day parade. “Earlier this kind of news could easily have been ‘handed out’ to some celebrity journalist and it would have been her exclusive. Now, by tweeting about it, Modi has sought to bring in democratization of news,” said a journalist from an English daily. 
 
“Those journalists were entrenched, they had access and so had exclusive information. Now, there is democratization of news, so they are cribbing,” he added. 
 
Nirendra Dev, Special Correspondent with the Statesman, said: “Media persons had a certain comfort zone. Those who had turned into armchair journalists are unhappy. Stories are not being done on the information that the government wants to hide.”  
 
In fact, this ‘entrenched’ journalist phenomenon also has another side to it as one prolific journalist pointed out: “There is so much information in the public domain. Parliamentary questions, parliament committees, consultants, NGOs and several stakeholders. Handout journalists – the lazy bones – simply don’t tap sources enough and instead rely on whatever information they can squeeze from a friendly minister. The information flow has not stopped, just that the ease with which one gets information has changed.”
 
Journalists from regional newspapers continue to tap ministers/MPs from their respective states. “English newspapers are doing something or the other, but most Hindi newspapers are coming out with what the government doles out,” said a Political Editor from one of the Hindi newspapers. 
 
Cabinet ministers indulging journalists in Central Hall is almost a thing of the past. After the first few months of no-talk, however, a few ministers are slowly beginning to talk. Inevitably these are the same ministers who talk with the media otherwise – Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari, Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad. “But what are they going to talk about? They themselves are out of the loop most of the time,” said a journalist who is a regular at Central Hall.
 
Comparison with the UPA regime was inevitable. Scams apart, there was a lot of internal bickering that found its way out to media. But now the picture has changed. “Earlier, during UPA time, the government had many loose canons and there was lot of cacophony and confusion. It suited the media but not the government. This government is streamlining everything and prioritizing governance,” said a bureau chief. 
 
Two prominent takeaways 
 
1. Despite the general atmosphere of not talking to the media, ministers such as Arun Jaitley (whose evening durbars with journalists are much talked about), Nitin Gadkari, Uma Bharti, Venkaiah Naidu, Prakash Javadekar and Suresh Prabhu talk freely or at least do not evade queries. 
 
In contrast, Rajnath Singh, who as the BJP chief was very media savvy, is reserved when it comes to meeting the media as the Home Minister. Singh, it seems, has finally started to settle down in the ministry. A few reporters who cover the ministry say that he is now starting to talk. “The kind of stories originating in the Ministry of Home Affairs are a testimony to the fact that slowly and steadily, cracks are appearing,” said a reporter.
 
The worst track record belongs to Minister of Human Resources Development SmritiIrani. Apparently, she has terrorized her officers so much they don’t even allow journalists to enter their rooms.
 
2. In general, the picture that has emerged is that the journalists covering ministries that are part of the Cabinet Committee on Security - Home, External Affairs, Finance, Defence and Human Resources Development – are the ones facing the most problems accessing information, along with business journalists. As against that, there appears to be no clampdown on development beats/ministries.   
 
But this government’s extra-sensitivity towards information leaks can be dangerous for the government itself. As a journalist from a regional newspaper said: “Sometimes rumours are passed on as news. There is deadline pressure, there is pressure from the editor so if a journalist does not get any official word and he goes ahead with the story based on the information he has, it can be counterproductive for the government.”  
 
Off the record quotes:
 
Q: What is the difference that you have noticed about people talking freely pre-Modi and post-Modi?
 
“You call up or write in a mail asking specific queries, they send out a statement never answering any specific queries.” 
 
“Not really. People with whom you have a rapport, they are still talking. It depends on person to person.”
 
“Only those people who are hurt in some manner are talking. These are those people who have been forced to abandon certain habits. For instance, the biometric attendance system has meant better attendance even if that means for many, it is something against their habits of years. Or those whose comfort zone is disturbed (ahem, you know what it means), they are talking.”
 
“In beats such as IB, R&AW, CBI/NIA, people have always been reluctant. Those who spoke earlier, continue to speak now too.” 
 
“If you are not dependent on PROs and you have a personal rapport with officials, ministers, the information flow never stops. If you have a good network, your sources never dry up.”
 
(Continued on page two...)
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