In a clear and perhaps somewhat controversial departure from tradition, the Modi government has been keeping the media at arm’s length. The first step that PM Modi took to ensure that the convention of Ministers interacting freely with the media, giving sound bytes and sharing information was discontinued, was appointing 70-year-old veteran aide Jagdish Thakkar, as only a Public Relations Officer. There is no Media Advisor to the PM.
The Government’s intent to keep media away, and communicate only through social media, has become evident in its refusal to invite media representatives for various public and diplomatic functions. Most significantly, the upcoming US trip, which is out of bounds for most Indian journalists.
Citing this restricted access to ministers and bureaucrats, the Editors Guild of India has asked the Modi government to "enlarge access and engage more actively" with the journalists.
"By delaying the establishment of a media interface in the Prime Minister's Office, in restricting access to ministers and bureaucrats in offices and in reducing the flow of information at home and abroad, the government in its early days seems to be on a path that runs counter to the norms of democratic discourse and accountability," the Guild said in a statement.
It said that every government is entitled to choose a media strategy that best suits its philosophy and interests.
"Indeed, the media would not grudge a government keeping an arm's-length distance while it is engaged with its core issues of governance. However, diminishing access to information to journalists and the media runs against the grain of democratic functioning in an age of openness, transparency and right to information," the Guild said.
Its statement highlighting "certain deficit in transparency in the functioning of the government" comes in the backdrop of a succession of press conferences by the new ministers to mark 100 days in office and the Prime Minister's interactions with the foreign media.
"While information always has ways of getting out, the public will be well served by such professional journalistic practices as identifying sources and getting elucidation and reactions from persons in office and outside.
"The Guild calls upon the government to enlarge access and engage more actively with professional journalists and the news media," the statement said.
The Guild, a professional body of editors, unreservedly welcomed the increasing use of social media by the new government to get its message across.
"But 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 the essential ingredients of a democratic discourse," it said.
The Guild hopes that the ministers and officials would continue to be as forthcoming with the media as they did when marking the completion of 100 days in office and that the Prime Minister would interact with the Indian media as well on the lines of his interactions with the international media, the statement said.
"The Editors Guild of India urges the government to see the news media, with its diversity, varied viewpoints and multiple functions, as a valuable interface with the democratic constituents," it added.