Mamata and her fresh war with the media (West Bengal Newsletter)
Known to share a love-hate relation with the media, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has now courted a new controversy with her government restricting free movement of mediapersons to various departments at Nabanna, the new secretariat in neighbouring Howrah.
The administration has issued an order - Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in official jargon - that is being seen as an attempt to confine mediapersons to the press corner on the first floor of the 14-storey building, which now serves as the seat of governance with the permanent secretariat "Writers' Buildings" under renovation.
The order makes it clear that journalists will not be allowed to enter any of the government departments without prior permission of the authorities concerned.
While access to the Chief Minister's Office (CMO) was already restricted, the latest curb has created resentment among the journalists who, using the accreditation cards issued by the state, enjoyed full access to the secretariat so long.
The order, which lays down the SOP regarding movement of mediapersons inside the secretariat, comes in the form of a missive to the information and cultural affairs department from A K Biswas, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Reserve Force), which handles security of Nabanna. It was circulated among the mediapersons earlier this week.
"Mediamen are supposed to remain only at the press corner on the first floor... until and unless they are informed or allowed by competent authority to go to any of the department at Nabanna for a photo session or a press briefing," the order says.
In what is being construed as a form of warning, the order claims any entry of mediamen to any other part of Nabanna without approval of the competent authority for the purpose of media coverage is "literally breach of the SOP and also prejudicial to security of the VIPs and official secrecy of various departments of the government".
The order comes days after three journalists, covering an official programme of Governor M.K. Narayanan and the chief minister in front of Nabanna, were beaten up by the police, leading to one of them being hospitalised with a head injury.
The incident occurred while a photo session was on during the unveiling of the state's administrative calendar by Narayanan.
Even though Narayanan ordered senior police officers to look into the matter, the twin incidents have created resentment among the media, a section of which has been the target of continuous barbs by the administration, led by the chief minister herself.
Often censuring the media for "spreading canards" against her government, Banerjee at times has even accused a part of the media of hatching a conspiracy to eliminate her in collusion with the Maoists and the opposition.
Not surprisingly, reporters have opposed the order, terming it as an "atrocious attempt to gag the media and make it paralytic".
"Indian democracy has always unequivocally rejected attempts of press censorship and there shall be no exception in this case as well. No stone will be left unturned to ensure survival and smooth functioning of the fourth estate," Kolkata Press Club president Sudipta Sengupta and secretary Anindya Sengupta said in a statement.
Besides revocation of the order, the Press Club has also sought apology for suggesting journalist were a threat to VIPs.
"The insinuation suggested in the notification that journalists are a threat to VIPs is grossly insulting to the media community. Press Club, Kolkata, demands that appropriate authorities in the government apologise for the insult heaped on media persons and assure not to repeat this in future," the statement read.
The Banerjee government had earlier kicked up a storm after its decision to ban leading dailies including all English newspapers, except eight Bengali and Hindi newspapers, in state-funded libraries to promote "free thinking".
Opposition parties and members of civil society as well as a section of the intelligentsia had come down hard on the decision.
(Anurag Dey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 18-01-2014)