NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The Editors Guild of India, which represents the country’s newspapers, urged the government on Wednesday to withdraw curbs that have reduced journalists’ access to officials in the finance ministry.
It criticised restrictions imposed by newly appointed Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on the entry of journalists to the finance ministry building in New Delhi.
Sitharaman says she is trying to streamline the system and has denied there is any blanket ban. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has previously been accused of undermining freedom of the press in India.
“This order is a gag on media freedoms and can even result in a further fall in India’s global press freedom rankings, especially as the contagion can easily spread to other ministries as well,” the Editors Guild said in a statement.
The restrictions will confine journalists to a porch at the front of the main finance ministry building rather than allowing them to move freely within its corridors, meaning they will only get unscheduled access to officials when they arrive or depart.
Indian journalists say that will reduce the number of source-based stories they are able to produce from the ministry seen as second only to the prime minister’s office in importance because its decisions influence the whole scope of government.
Journalists who met with Sitharaman on Tuesday failed to persuade her to reconsider.
“Entry of media persons, including those holding a PIB (Press Information Bureau) accredited card, will be on the basis of prior appointment,” her office said afterwards in a statement.
Critics have said that freedom of the press has been under attack since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government first took office in 2014 and journalists have complained of intimidation for writing critical stories.
In more than five years in power, Modi has not held one news conference in India. The prime minister’s office is also not accessible for journalists without a scheduled appointment.
India’s ranking fell by two points to 140th out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, lower than countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Philippines. It ranked 80th out of 139 countries surveyed when the index was started in 2002.