New Delhi, India – Journalists in India are protesting against the government’s decision to limit the number of reporters covering the ongoing winter session of parliament through a “lottery system”, calling it a “ploy to censor transmission of news and information to people”.
Dozens of journalists and representatives from India’s press and media bodies gathered at the Press Club of India (PCI) in the capital New Delhi on Thursday, shouting slogans such as “Long live press freedom” and demanding access to parliament.
Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the government last year restricted the entry of media personnel to the parliament.
Ahead of the parliament’s winter session that started on Monday, a “lottery system” was introduced to allow 60 journalists inside Lok Sabha (lower house) and 32 in Rajya Sabha (upper house), with 11 and 10 slots respectively reserved for government-run and some select media organisations and agencies.
The restriction has led to anger among the media fraternity, who told Al Jazeera the number of journalists allowed inside the house has been “drastically reduced”.
“It started with the pretext of COVID in 2020 but now things have gone too far and this is the reason why I say that if we don’t protest now, this will become a permanent thing,” editor and TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai said in his address to the protesting journalists.
“The present lottery system which has been devised is giving no access at all to the smaller newspapers. You cannot cover parliament only by watching Sansad TV,” he said, referring to the government channel that telecasts parliamentary proceedings.
In a statement on Tuesday, the PCI said: “In the largest democracy of the world, the entry of journalists in the parliament is regulated through [a] ‘lottery system’… This is a very dangerous trend in a parliamentary democracy like India.”
The PCI alleged it was the fifth session of parliament when restrictions on reporting from the parliament imposed in the wake of the pandemic have been tightened.
“Assurances given to us were not complied with,” it said.
In an open letter to India’s political parties last week, the PCI pointed out that curbs imposed in markets, cinemas, restaurants and other public spaces at the peak of the pandemic had been lifted while the restrictions on reporting in parliament remain.
“We are concerned that there is a depressing trend emerging to isolate parliament and parliamentarians from media gaze,” the letter said, adding that the “trend augurs ill of parliamentary democracy and [is] much against the spirit of our parliamentary democracy”.
A journalist covering parliament’s proceedings for an English newspaper told Al Jazeera the move is “not good for our democracy”.
“As per the new guidelines, I can cover the parliament proceedings only for four or five days during the 19-day-long winter session because media organisations have access to cover the parliament proceedings on a rotational basis,” he said on condition of anonymity.
“The flow of information is skewed now.”
India ranks 142nd among 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, according to press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which also listed Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “predator” of press freedom.
India’s opposition parties and rights activists have accused Modi’s government of targeting journalists through draconian laws, controlling a section of right-wing news media, and avoiding discussions on key issues inside the parliament.
On Monday, the government repealed the controversial farm laws with a voice vote, ignoring the opposition’s demand to hold a debate on the legislation in parliament.
“It is very undemocratic what the government is doing by keeping the media out of reporting because in a parliamentary democracy the media plays a very important role,” Sanjay Kapoor, general secretary of the Editors Guild of India, told Al Jazeera.
“They use the pretext of coronavirus to keep them away but now when every possible thing has opened up, malls and airlines, and they still want to keep the media away, their intentions need to be questioned,” he said.
“It’s a pattern which is visible with this government. They don’t want the media to question them.”