Journalists are not always a very disciplined lot.
Keeping them at an arm’s length can be a good strategy for the government – and that can happen as a result of their own misbehaviour; but banning them from the source of information can have different implications.
This is precisely what happened after an order was passed that no media person would be allowed to enter the finance ministry or talk to the officials without permission. Ministries are usually restricted areas and permissions are granted only after prior appointment. But such notifications scare away the officials and collecting information for journalists become more difficult as the ‘sources’ become increasingly close-lipped.
But what is more disturbing is the attempt by the finance minister to keep some of the figures ‘hidden’. This goes against the transparency that people usually expect from the budget, which is supposed to be the ‘annual accounts’ of the performance of the government – a mandatory disclosure of a ‘company’ in the corporate sector. Nirmala Sitharaman broke convention and hardly mentions figures in her budget speech and later clarifies that all figures are given in the appended financial statements. Usually the key figures of revenue and expenditure are given in both A and B parts of the budget speech to make it simpler for the common man to understand. Part B is meant more for the specialist to fetch the accounts segments of his interest.
Against the backdrop of recent global suspicions raised about the authenticity of official statistics released by India, has the government reasons to hide anything from the public? Questions are being asked in spite of the finance minister’s assurance that every figure in the budget is ‘authentic’. For example, the numbers stated in the budget as ‘revised estimates’ for 2018-19 do not tally with the government’s own estimates of actual revenues and expenditure in that year as shown in the Economic Survey. The Survey was brought out in July (instead of the usual February/March) and the government had time to incorporate the actual receipts and spending of the fiscal year ending March 31, 2019. The shortfall in tax revenues was actually lower than revised estimates by 13.5% (` 1,65,176 crore). A JNU economist suggests that this shortfall has grave implications: the fiscal deficit was greater by ` 10,963 crore, which amounts to 3.45 % of GDP and not 3.3% as stated.
When the GST collections did not meet the target, the government made cuts in the allocations. What the figures were, were not disclosed in the budget papers. This lack of transparency is what raises concern about the government’s action.
Singapore is the latest in the list of countries that have made ‘fake news’ a crime. Justifiably so. But is it proper to blame the media alone for creating fake news? Disinformation can be of many kinds and can have several sources. Fudging of figures, for example in public finance, can seldom originate in the media. Finding scapegoats is easy; but getting solutions in credibility and authenticity are really difficult. Hiding facts and figures is no solution.