The West Bengal government’s new policy on accreditation for journalists has resulted in the intervention of the Chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, who has written to the Chief Minister to put on hold the West Bengal Press Representative Accreditation (Amendment) Rules 2011. It deals with the issue of accreditation cards to journalists. West Bengal government wants to implement new laws for journalists but that calls for a wider debate on the issue.
The new rule said that all accreditation cards issued by the previous government would cease to exist after midnight of December 31, 2011, and all cards had to be submitted to the Information and Cultural Affairs Department for a renewal to the smart card. The smart idea that is now criticised by all concerned for being “biased and anti-journalist”.
According to the new rule, every 24-hour news channel – irrespective of viewership - is entitled to 25 cards for reporters and 20 five others for cameramen, whereas newspapers will get cards on the basis of circulation. Hence, any paper with a circulation between two and three lakh will get 24 cards for reporters and eight for photographers. A paper such as Anandbazaar, with a circulation of over 7 lakh is entitled to 60 cards for reporters and 20 for photographers. This seems a bit unfair considering that many regional 24-hour news channels have a daily viewership of over 7 lakh. It also raises the question as to why the accreditation committee is deciding to distribute sops on the basis of the performance-level of the media houses. The previous government had issued up to 30 cards to regional 24-hour news channels.
Initially, it was being claimed that in its bid to streamline the media fraternity and to provide due access to journalists, the accreditation process was being restructured. It was made public that since several “non-journalists” had been issued accreditation cards during the tenure of the previous government, the present government would follow the quota system for media houses, and the cards would not belong to the journalists.
A very senior journalist and a member of the press council confessed that since accreditation was given to people who just happened to be in the favoured list of the previous government, the present one wanted to streamline the process. But the question here is whether accreditation is given on the basis of representation of the media houses or journalistic practice. The quota system for channels and media houses has given rise to the question: Is accreditation for journalists or media houses?
Several media houses have opposed the idea of making the market (viewership/ readership) the prime factor in getting government recognition. On the other hand, many journalists feel that in a State such as West Bengal where journalists have been given perks, government pension, railway and bus concession, why should it be the media houses which decide whether journalists will get those perks by including their names in their quota for accreditation? Besides, why should even the fate of the media houses be decided on their yearly turnover. Small newspapers and lesser-known TV channels and cable networks have survived and reached out to more specific viewership/ readership in remote areas of the State.
Journalists agree that the accreditation card is their passport to the world of media. Many do not find jobs because they have not been in the recognition list of the government. Besides, an accreditation entitles them to various benefits, freebies and concessions. And they say that they are entitled to it only because of their long -term commitment to the profession, their experience and the hard work they do as whistleblowers. If their work has no recognition how would they survive? In a politically polarised society of West Bengal the government’s new policy has become a playing ground for settling long set scores. With the government openly deciding the fate of a journalist how can the media not face the barbs of being reined in?
Accredited journalists are entitled to certain benefits bestowed by the government – from rail travel to government pension on retirement. Primarily, however, the cards allow access to restricted zones such as Writers’ Building, Rajbhavan and the Assembly House or during VIP/VVIP visits. Journalist, having worked for many years are in no way ready to comply with the new rule and give away their rights while the government, in its apparent bid to rein in the media, finds it better to keep a check on media houses than individual journalists.
The matter has been taken to court by certain media personnel.