Finance Ministry quarantine: Journalist with valid IDs refused entry
Journalists covering Finance Ministry were refused entry in the North Block office on Monday. Security guards posted at the entrance of the ministry informed the journalists, who were carrying their valid identity cards issued by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), that they have not received any orders to lift the budget quarantine period that had come into play in the second week of June.
A senior journalist covering the Finance Ministry for almost 15 years said,The quarantine period is an annual feature. Ahead of the budget, entry for journalists in the Finance Ministry is closed to maintain secrecy of the budget. Only in rare circumstance journalists are allowed in. For that, there has to be an invitation from the ministers or top most officials. This period ends the day budget is presented in parliament by the finance minister.
The lifting of the quarantine period is an official exercise. But it seems that despite the budget presentation on Friday, the orders to lift the quarantine have not been sent to the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) that handles the entry and perimeter of the ministry.
Also at the start of the restrictive period, journalists were informed by a mail from the PIB and a mail announcing its end is yet to be received.
Through the day, the media persons covering the ministry waited outside making queries about the delay in lifting of quarantine restriction from the two senior PIB information officers, who handle the flow of information from the ministry to the journalists but in vain.
The official IDs issued by the PIB allow access to journalists to all ministries and government buildings barring offices of intelligence and investigative agencies, PMO, sections of defence ministry and offices handling strategic information.
This permission which is annually renewed after due security screening declaring the journalist not a security threat is subject to restrictions during certain periods like budget or events at Rashtrapati Bhawan or visits of high ranking dignitaries.
In these cases an additional layer of security passes are issued.
A senior journalist covering the ministry said, "I have been told that ground rules for covering the ministry have been changed and entry even for valid PIB card or government ID will be toned up to entry on the basis of appointments." However, there was no official confirmation about any change in rules.
A senior Finance Ministry official speaking about the restriction said, "There is a problem being faced in the ministry due to the ease of entry a PIB card allows. Journalists enter, loiter inside the corridors and accost officers with their queries. Some even use mobile phones to record videos of officers and ministers moving inside the corridors. That has been adding to the work pressure as facing the media all through the day is not part of daily duty of officials."
Citing a similar "loitering" problem, the Ministry of Home Affairs too recently had to impose restrictions on movement of journalists inside the building. Journalists were politely told that there would be no change in the entry rules but aimless loitering would not be appreciated.
The restriction in the Finance Ministry, journalists say, if continues, will hurt information gathering. A reporter from a business TV news channel said, "Officials meet reporters on an informal basis. If an appointment-must-for-meeting rule is enforced none of the officials would like to meet reporters as it would expose their identity."
Senior journalist Anant Bagaitkar, who is the President or Press Club of India reacting to the restriction said, "After budget presentation, the quarantine orders are recalled. That's been the convention for decades. I hope the ministry will soon issue the termination order and journalists will be allowed normal duties of course in a non-intrusive manner. Otherwise, it undermines the ID cards the government issues to journalists."
Some journalists speaking off record said, Over the last few years, access levels have been going down. And it's becoming more and more difficult to meet officials who are a great source of not necessarily scoops but day to day bread and butter information.
A senior journalist recalled that a Congress minister, few years ago, had in a show of distrust started the policy of making journalists coming to his ministry deposit their mobile phones outside. Another editor recalled how recently some reporters were denied entry despite valid IDs inside Agriculture Ministry as the security guard said that post 5 pm officials meeting time was over.