New Era For Indian Democracy, But Challenges Remain For Journalists


By Rohinee Sing

While elected members of the new Lok Sabha experienced some positive changes, the dream of free and comfortable reporting for journalists remains distant

On June 24, the 18th Lok Sabha—the newly elected body of the Indian Parliament—convened for its maiden session. With 52% of members comprising new faces and the opposition ‘INDIA’ alliance buoyed by its strong performance in the polls, the overall atmosphere was empowering and full of energy.

The parliament building remained the same, nor were the benches new either, but the sight of a balanced house, with the treasury and opposition benches equally occupied, was a refreshing change. For the first time in a decade, the opposition was not marginalised.

The long dominance of a single leader has been greatly reduced, and those who had been suspended or expelled repeatedly are now confident that their voices will not be so easily silenced. Democracy, it seems, was hard at work both inside the House, by the ruling party, and outside, by the media. But the mood of the media outside was far more sombre. While the elected members of Parliament (MPs) might experience some positive changes, the dream of free and comfortable reporting for journalists remains distant.

After a gap of ten years, the Lok Sabha once again has a Leader of the Opposition (LoP)—the official leader of the opposition parties.

During his past two terms, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, enjoyed an absolute mandate, preventing any opposition party from garnering the required 10% of seats needed to secure the LoP’s position.

Now, with the Congress securing 99 seats and the INDIA alliance winning another 230 seats, Rahul Gandhi has been chosen as the LoP and head of the opposition.

Interestingly, those without the mandate appeared more confident and energetic, while the ministers were unusually busy with last-minute preparations, something they had forgotten to do long ago.

Ministers were seen taking briefings from officials before entering the House, insisting that these officials remain in the officers’ gallery for assistance. After a decade, they were forced to answer tough questions from the opposition.

The opposition scored its first moral victory when Prime Minister Modi was compelled to intervene during Gandhi’s speech in the Presidential address. This marked the first time since Modi became PM in 2014 that he had intervened, and he did so twice. And more so, he remained in the House long enough to hear the closing words of Gandhi’s speech.

The verbal battles between the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and INDIA continued over issues like examination paper leaks and leaking roofs of the much-vaunted Ram Temple at Ayodhya, which Modi had inaugurated just weeks before the polls. Both sides, it seemed, were still in their election campaign modes.

Modi’s attempts to discredit and split the opposition by reminding the House of the dark days of Indira Gandhi’s emergency was met with strong backlash from both Congress and INDIA members who had opposed the emergency.

The previously voiceless opposition appeared to have finally found its voice and put government accountability back on track. But journalists reporting from Parliament still awaited their [‘ache din’] (good days), hoping redrawn lines in Parliament would create a more conducive environment for journalism.

Globally, the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared last year that COVID-19 was no longer a pandemic. However, pandemic-related restrictions on journalists covering parliamentary proceedings in India remain in place.

The quota for each news organisation, which was reduced by more than half during the pandemic, has not been restored. Annual passes issued to the press, suspended in 2020, remain invalid. Senior journalists accredited by the Lok Sabha under the ‘Long’ and ‘Distinguished’ categories remained barred from entering the Parliament, with their passes cancelled without explanation. Moreover, the new security arrangements have exacerbated journalists’ woes.

The security of the Parliament was previously handled by the Parliament Security Service (PSS). However, it has been transferred to the Central Industrial Security Forces (CISF) since May of this year. The CISF, which provides security to institutions such as airports and seaports, has imposed stringent security checks inside the Parliament, making it difficult for journalists to gain access or perform simple tasks. Accredited journalists, who had a cordial relationship with PSS, now face airport-like security, with checking at multiple levels and restrictions on standing in groups, making reporting challenging. Some journalists were even instructed not to carry certain brands of pens or to have more than one pen inside the media gallery, a practice not seen even after the 2001 Parliament attack.

After winning the battle to carry pens and notepads, journalists now face security personnel occupying the first row of the gallery. This row offered a bird’s eye view of the proceedings, essential for observing members’ body language, group dynamics, and conduct. But journalists have now been censored from gleaning this view.

“The way security personnel inside the media enclosure stare at you taking notes makes you feel as if you are committing a crime,” said a senior journalist whose access to the media gallery has yet to be revoked. He said this atmosphere creates a sense of fear and suffocation.

Only journalists with proper accreditation, obtained after thorough police scrutiny, can now enter the Parliament. Despite the routine checks, CISF personnel randomly stop journalists for identity verification. “This is not an airport. Journalists entering Parliament have already undergone multilevel scrutiny,” explained another journalist. The PSS, which was familiar with journalists’ routines, offered a different experience.

The new Parliament premises also poses challenges of its own. The old circular edifice with round pillars and a wide lobby allowed journalists and MPs to interact freely. The Central Hall, which was open to senior journalists before the pandemic, was a place to score news scoops and political gossip. However, the Central Hall has been removed in the new Parliament, and everyone struggles to navigate the new building. The old building also boasted multiple entry and exit points, with adjacently placed media and parliamentarians’ doors facilitating interactions. The new building’s separate, distant media entry and exit points hinder journalists from meeting members.

“Now our exits are so far that by the time we reach a member, they might have already left,” said another journalist, describing the ordeal.

Several press bodies, including The Editor’s Guild of India and The Press Club of India, have written to the heads of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, requesting the removal of the COVID-era restrictions to allow journalists to work effectively.

“This press censorship is worse than the Emergency Days. The media then was censored, but not barred from doing the job,” said Gautam Lahiri, President of the Press Club of India.

Until 2020, hundreds of journalists used to cover the Parliament. This number has drastically shrunk. The Editors Guild of India has also requested the removal of media restrictions in a letter to the heads of both houses.

With the opposition now able to negotiate, journalists and their representative bodies hope to garner support for the upcoming Monsoon session. “We have requested the Speaker. If our issue is not resolved, we will ask opposition leaders to raise the matter in the House so that journalists can do justice to their profession,” hoped Lahiri.__Courtesy The Friday Times Pakistan