“If anyone has any questions then please go ahead,” said Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to reporters while addressing a press conference on July 11. He answered more than five questions about the Aam Aadmi Party’s governance. On July 14, in another press conference, Kejriwal responded to a question from a reporter about the demolition of a church in South Delhi that month, which sparked a political row.
None of these interactions, however, took place in Delhi. Instead, Kejriwal was speaking to journalists in Uttarakhand and Goa – states where his party is hoping to make a splash in assembly elections next year. In the city-state that Kejriwal and AAP currently govern, the chief minister has not held a single press conference for over a year.
Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Kejriwal and the deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia have resorted to addressing the media and the public through a live webcast. The webcast lasts barely a few minutes with the chief minister providing daily updates on the government’s initiatives and the number of Covid-19 cases.
But they do not answer any questions from reporters. Instead, for over a year, there has been no way for reporters to send their questions during the webcast, multiple reporters covering the Delhi government told Scroll.in.
The sense that the Delhi government has, particularly over the last year and a half, cut access to journalists is not limited to just the chief minister and his deputy. It extends to other ministers and officials who do not respond to questions, leaving reporters to rely only on press releases, they said.
One reporter in the city put it more bluntly: “We are reduced to doing PR [public relations] for them.”
‘All questions stonewalled’
All the journalists who spoke to Scroll.in for this story cover the AAP and the Delhi government, and work across print, broadcast and digital news organisations. They requested anonymity, fearing further difficulty in their reporting.
The Aam Aadmi Party – which was founded in 2013 and won power that same year riding an anti-corruption message – promised from the start that it would bring more transparency and greater accountability than the much older national parties that had run Delhi before.
Initially, the party held frequent press briefings, meetings with government officials and press conferences. These meetings were usually held at the Delhi Secretariat or at the chief minister’s residence and were open to the press, reporters said.
But over the last six years of AAP rule in Delhi, this has changed.
“[Before], at least at press conferences you could try your luck and ask a question,” said a reporter who has been on the beat for over seven years. “But now there is no question of that.”
Covering the beat had left many reporters desperate for information from the government.
“Things which are fairly common in other states like routine health data, shortages in hospitals, rations not reaching the poor, we do not even get the standard quote [from them],” said the reporter. “This has made dailies very desperate for news on the state government so anything they plant will be published.”
It is not uncommon for governments, at the Centre and state level, to exercise tight control over information and refuse to interact with the press. What is different is AAP’s claim to being more accountable to the public than its rivals. Over the last few years, however, it appears to have become as thin-skinned as any other government.
“If you put out a slightly critical story then they stop taking your calls,” said another reporter. “All questions are stonewalled... I bombard them with queries everyday but they never respond.”
For some journalists, the obstructions came especially if AAP leaders shared hostile relations with their editors.
“Ministers from the government have told me they don’t want to speak to me because I am always writing ‘negatively’ about them,” said one reporter who has been covering the Delhi government for two years. “They only want you to praise them otherwise sorry, access denied.”
Scroll.in sent queries to Jasmine Shah, who is in charge of the chief minister’s communications and is the vice-chairman of the Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi, a policy advisory arm of the government, and to Pritam Pal Singh, the media facilitator, about the chief minister’s lack of physical press conferences and about why reporters are not unable to ask him questions.
This article will be updated if they respond.
Data on Covid-19
Sections of the Indian media, particularly TV news channels, have over the last seven years been accused of blatantly pushing the line of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the Centre and has repeatedly sought to undercut AAP’s authority in the capital. But, as with many of its other policies, AAP seems to be borrowing from the BJP playbook rather than offering an alternative.
The Delhi government started addressing the media through live webcasts after the nationwide lockdown in March last year, and dubbed them “digital press conferences”. At the time, some reporters had approached the government to arrange for their questions to be answered by Kejriwal during the livestream. But nothing materialised, they said.
“Sometimes only ANI gets to ask questions but those are not very sharp,” said a journalist with a newspaper who has been covering the government for four years.“They do not want to answer questions and are following Modi’s path.” The journalist was referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has not addressed a single press conference since he occupied the post in 2014.
Data on the Covid-19 crisis offers another exmaple of the government trimming the amount of information it shares.
The government’s health bulletins provide information on the number of Covid-19 cases, deaths, containment zones, availability of hospital beds for each day. The bulletin for each day arrives around the evening but reporter said that they were often delayed. Reporters also pointed out that over the past year, the information provided through this bulletin had shrunk.
For instance, the bulletin issued on April 20, 2020, gave information over three pages on the total number of positive cases, the age profile of the cases and deaths, the status of the samples tested for Covid-19 at government as well as private laboratories, the number of cases and critical patients in public as well as private hospitals and Covid care centres. It also shared data on the number of patients under home quarantine.
The bulletin issued on August 1 is just a page long and shows the data for the number of Covid-19 cases, the number of RTPCR and antigen tests, deaths, recoveries, and number of beds that remain occupied and vacant at hospitals and Covid care centres. It shows the number of people vaccinated with the first and second dose for that day. The government has not defended or explained its decision to provide fewer details in the daily health bulletin.
It separately provides a vaccination bulletin which provides information on the number of doses administered for each vaccine, the number of government vaccination centres and the number of doses in stock.
The wall between reporters and the government grew taller this year. Between April and May, a tsunami of Covid-19 cases hit Delhi, as India was going through its devastating second wave Nearly 20,000 cases were reported on an average as hospitals were left overwhelmed and patients struggled for beds. The capital also witnessed dire shortages of medical oxygen, which was allotted by the Centre based on the states’ demand. Several private hospitals in the city recorded deaths due to a dip in oxygen supply.
At the time, the government started to send an oxygen bulletin outlining how much they received from the Centre. And Kejriwal had claimed that his government was transparent with information. “
The Delhi government does not hide anything,” he said in an interview with NDTV in April during the second wave. “Our data, be it death data, our extraordinary levels of testing, the number of cases, the number of vacant beds, oxygen and medicine availability. We have kept everything in front of the public,” he said.
But reporters claimed it was difficult to question the government at the time on why they fell short on their preparations. The state health minister Satyendar Jain was known to not pick up calls from reporters, said the journalist who has been covering the government for four years.
Two weeks into the second wave, patients continued to scramble for beds. Scroll.in had reported on the lack of a centralised bed allotment system on May 2 and sought responses from the government but did not receive any.
Others said the health department made it impossible for them to report on the number of deaths that took place at the time. “We knew there was underreporting,” said the reporter on the beat for two years. “But when I contacted the health department to ask for the data for a particular month, they said they did not have it,” she said. “That is just lies.”
In May, the chief media coordinator of the Delhi government unexpectedly removed seven journalists from the Hindustan Times from its WhatsApp group on which it shares daily updates, reported Newslaundry. The reason for this was a report published on May 6 that detailed five things that the Delhi government had failed to do to avert the oxygen crisis, according to the website.
At least five journalists on the group questioned the Delhi government on this and demanded an explanation, but nothing came of it, it adds.
Nearly three weeks later, the government’s media WhatsApp group became redundant and the six expelled reporters were not added back. Instead, the government started broadcasting its press releases individually, reporters said.
Most reporters said they had stopped depending on the Delhi government’s responses for such information and quoted data in the affidavits the government filed in courts and information compiled by activists.
The Aam Aadmi Party first came to power in 2013, albeit without a majority in the assembly. In 2015, it was re-elected with a huge majority, a feat it managed to repeat in 2020.
Shortly after its victory in 2015, the party – which claimed transparency as one of its strengths – barred the media from freely accessing the Delhi Secretariat, and only allowed them to enter after 3 pm. At the time, this irked several journalists, who compared the AAP with any other political party which was unable to stomach a story critical of it.
Entry to the secretariat continues to be restricted to 3 pm with the reception generating a pass for the reporter. But after the lockdown, access seems to have been tightened.
Similar to changes made by the BJP after it came to power at the Centre, reporters said the reception calls the media team to inform them of the journalist’s presence in the secretariat and waits for their green signal before generating an entry pass.
“They can track who is entering that day and if your story is published the next day then they could find out who you met,” said a reporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But why do I need their permission to enter a public office?” he asked.
Apart from this, information within the Delhi government which flowed from various sources in departments had now become heavily centralised, said reporters. “For all information you have to go to one person and that person can choose to speak to you or not,” said the 35-year old reporter.
In its first term, the AAP-led government had appointed Nagendar Sharma, a former journalist, as the chief minister’s media advisor, who frequently interacted with reporters and provided information on the government’s initiatives. But Sharma exited the party last year after they won the elections, and his tenure as advisor was not renewed.
Sharma told Scroll.in it was “not appropriate” for him to comment on the matter.
So far, the government has not appointed anyone else in his place, and it is unclear who the official spokesperson is. The director of the Directorate of Information and Publicity, a department under the government, said he had no role in speaking to the media.
“I am not the spokesperson of the government,” Manoj Kumar Dwivedi told Scroll.in. “My role is different,” he said. “I have to ensure that the government’s policies reach the public.”
Currently, reporters send questions for the Delhi government to one Pritam Pal Singh, a former journalist, who facilitates responses for the media and sends out daily updates and press releases. Interestingly, Singh does not have a media designation but has been officially appointed as a secretary to the chairman of the Delhi Jal Board since July last year, according to his appointment order.
This aspect has made several reporters wary of fielding responses from him as an official spokesperson. “He is on the payroll of the Delhi Jal Board but functions as a post box that sends letters from the government,” explained a 35-year old reporter who has been covering the government for over seven years.
“He may receive letters from us but those letters are not replied to,” the reporter said. “And we cannot say we sent the letters because he is an unofficial post box. The state can always arm twist and say they did not receive anything,” he said. “This is all by design.”