Only seven to eight reporters – two from Indian Express, two from Financial Express, two from PTI, one from ANI and 16 editors attended the post-budget dinner while rest of the journalists boycotted the dinner, causing a huge embarrassment for the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, said a senior journalist on condition of anonymity.
In an unprecedented show of unity and in an effort to safeguard “journalistic freedom” over 100 journalists covering Finance Ministry decided not to attend the post-budget dinner party hosted by Sitharaman at Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi on Friday.
Journalists unanimously decided to boycott the post-budget dinner because, as per the Times of India (ToI), “The finance ministry has put in place restrictions on the entry of media persons into North Block, allowing access to only those accredited journalists who have a prior appointment with an official”.
A senior journalist who has been covering Finance Ministry for over a decade and who is well-known for his in-depth understanding of the economy and finance told NH that the boycott “was an initiative towards safeguarding our interest as well as the interests of the coming generations of journalists”.
According to several journalists with whom NH spoke, the ANI reporter was allowed to attend the dinner, after discussion, as the management of the news agency reportedly pressurized him to do so.
“But the ANI reporters also stood firm in solidarity with us and he raised the issue also during his interaction with the officials,” conceded a business editor.
As per the information collected from various sources, as many as 34 officials belonging to the Finance Ministry besides the hotel’s employees were deployed at the Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi to attend the journalists. “In fact, numbers of hosts surpassed the number of guests,” bantered a senior reporter.
Impact of the boycott can be gauged by the fact that out of 180 members of a WhatsApp group called FINMIN (a group of the journalists covering Finance Ministry) only about seven to eight turned up for the dinner; that too due to “pressure” from their employers.
“It clearly indicates that journalists are feeling suffocated in this regime…discontent among reporters, journalists is constantly rising and this is not a healthy sign for a democracy,” commented a veteran journalist working with an English magazine.
Aghast and antagonised by the ban on entering the Ministry of Finance, journalists feel the gag order may have ripple effect.
“If not revoked, this may lead to retrenchment in media as no news channel or newspaper would like to depute a reporter for a ministry where there is no scope for a scoop or an exclusive story,” said a business reporter, adding that this kind of one-way communication is neither good for media nor for the democracy.
When asked about their further plan of action vis-à-vis gag order, journalists covering the Ministry of Finance told NH that in coming future, mass requests for appointment will be sent along with mas RTI applications in order to put pressure on the government to revoke the order.