Three recent instances in different parts etch an image of similarity among Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Kerala's Pinarayi Vijayan.
In the US, hardly a fortnight ago, a judge ruled that the White House violated the CNN journalist’s right to due process by stripping him of his press badge. President Trump's press secretary Sarah Sanders immediately responded saying the administration was readying new rules to govern the behaviour of journalists and taking action if these were broken. “We have to create rules and regulations for conduct,” was what Trump said in an interview.
Back in Delhi in the middle of this year, the Modi Government put out an order that print and television journalists found guilty of publishing ‘fake’ news would lose their accreditation and stricter action for a repeated offence. Accreditation is the security access journalists have to government offices and Parliament. But the order was quickly withdrawn after media outcry. The Prime Minister’s Office responded saying the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had acted on its own.
Down South, the Pinarayi Vijayan Government has just come out with a gagging order bringing severe curbs on the media. The order issued by the Additional Chief Secretary of Home says media cannot take reactions from the Chief Minister, his Cabinet colleagues and other high profile people while they are at public functions organised by government or non-government ones without prior permission from the public relations department (PRD). Such interactions at any public events will be decided in advance by PRD and media will be informed.
Worse still, even entry for mediapersons will be determined by PRD.
Any media interaction with these VIPs and so-called people's representatives at airports or railway stations or government guest houses can be only after PRD is informed.
The reason cited in the order is there was ‘unnecessary rush’ by the media to get reactions from the Chief Minister and other high profile people causing ‘security’ problems.
Only accredited journalists would be allowed to attend the Chief Minister's press conferences at the State Secretariat.
The order is based on recommendations of the Justice PS Antony Commission appointed after sleaze tapes were aired by a Malayalam television channel which led to the resignation of a Minister,who is back in Pinarayi's Cabinet, after media reports of land-grabbing saw his replacement bow out.
But the crux of it is that there was lot of ‘negative’ news being put out and ‘major’ initiatives of the Government got little prominence. Notes issued directly by bureaucrats and senior officials gave room for close contacts with these officials resulting in drawbacks and failures of the Government getting exposed. Department heads and top officials have been restricted from interacting independently with the media. Only filtered or censored reports from the PRD can now be newsworthy material.
While Pinarayi has said nothing about the circular, coming as it does from his Home Department, his Industries Minister EP Jayarajan, whose nepotism was earlier exposed by the media and cost him his job for sometime, said the restrictions were for 'smooth’ functioning.
Hounding the media out has been Pinarayi's forte and with arrogance he had once asked journalists to get out of a meeting place. Intolerance to criticism has always been Pinarayi's hallmark.
But by this media gagging act, he has struck again at the basic tenet of free press. His priggish act against media persons has wider ramifications as it is people who are being denied right to information. It is not just simply about curbs on media persons who are mere employees of media houses that survive also on a lot of largesse from the Government. Journalists are restrained from taking stern steps like boycott unless they have the backing of their media house.
But it is an issue concerning society, a denial of its right to know. When Rajiv Gandhi tried going ahead with the controversial Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill in 1987 to muzzle the Press,, reminiscing the Emergency days, he had to withdraw it in the wake of popular protest.
Given the growing opposition to many of Pinarayi's unpopular and autocratic ways and his refusal to read the writings on the wall, a popular reaction is imperative.