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Walkout in Kerala assembly over media gag
By Ashraf Padanna December 07, 2018
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TRIVANDRUM: The Congress-led opposition staged a walkout in the Kerala Assembly on Thursday after the state’s communist-run government justified curbs it imposed on media.

A recent order directs reporters to seek permission from the public relations department to ask questions to ministers and VIPs in public places and interviews.

It also imposes restrictions on journalists entering the Secretariat, the seat of power housing offices of the chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, and other ministers.

Former information minister KC Joseph, who sought a debate on the issue, also described it as an attempt to keep a tab on his ministers and opposition leaders.

Replying on behalf of the chief minister, industries minister EP Jayarajan justified the circular issued by the home secretary, saying it was for better dissemination.

He reminded the Congress legislator that Vijayan had promised to rectify any mistake in the circular if required when he brought it as a submission earlier.

It was for the second time the opposition raising the issue in the House, earlier through a submission to which Vijayan promised to have a relook, but he did not.

“Our only aim is to ensure responsible journalism and accurate reporting,” he said. “We are ready to rectify if there’s an error in the circular.” However, the opposition, not satisfied with the explanation, listed a series of attacks on the media by the chief minister since he came to power in mid-2016.

They accused Vijayan of being a ‘clone’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in keeping away journalists and imposing restrictions on independent media.

“He first stopped customary post-cabinet briefing which was a practice since 1957 (when the state formed),” said Ramesh Chennithala, the opposition floor leader.

“Then he shouted ‘get out’ at journalists (covering peace talks after a series of political killings). He’s attacking free and fair journalism in a typical communist style. I just wanted to remind you this is a democracy.”

The Congress leader reminded the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM of their joint protests against similar moves in Gujarat and Rajasthan, both ruled by Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

”He (Vijayan) rarely meets reporters, and when he meets, he won’t allow them to ask questions. When they ask uncomfortable questions, he scolds them,” he said.

“This circular is against the democratic traditions of Kerala. When you curb the media freedom, you guillotine the democracy.” He read out editorials of prominent regional newspapers condemning the gag and quoted India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who “considered free media as an important pillar of democracy.” He equated Vijayan’s behaviour to Ronald Trump’s treatment of CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta and Modi’s attempts to keep NDTV off the air.

He described the circular as “draconian.” The opposition legislators shredded the circular and threw the pieces in the air before the walkout amidst shouts from the treasury benches.

“Where is he leading us to, the Soviet era (of totalitarianism)?” asked the deputy leader Dr MK Muneer, before leading members of his Indian Union Muslim League to walk out.

The journalists’ unions also staged protest meetings across the state this week demanding the immediate withdrawal of the “gag order.” But the government is yet to respond.

Vijayan had restricted access to his office to both the public and journalists as soon as he assumed office in mid-2016. He also shut the cameras that webcast his office and chamber 24X7.

He rarely takes questions from journalists and his office supplies statements, photographs and video clips of his meetings on WhatsApp.

Tightening the restrictions the new guidelines ask reporters to approach the information and public relations department (IPRD) for news and interviews.

They cannot approach the chief minister and his ministers for ‘sound bytes’ at Secretariat, government offices, railway stations or airports.

The new order says that accredited correspondents can enter the Secretariat while others will have to wait till the Secretariat opens for the general public in the evening.

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