Between the lines and red lines

Where do you draw a line where media freedom should end? That is an old debate. Its contours are shaped by the times you live in, the system you work in and, of course, the biases of those whom you ask. If we reframe this question and ask: where do you draw a line where state authority in controlling the media should end? This can give us some perspective of how media in Kashmir has been handled by the State after the July 2016 uprising.

But when the State and its concomitant system thrive on obfuscation, propaganda, lies and outright denial, then probably you don’t have to raise this question in the open. There won’t be any categorical, clear-cut answers, for that entails retribu- tion, sometimes in retrospect. So you have to find the answers between the unsaid and unwritten lines. And within the undrawn red lines, you are forced to put across your free thinking mind to curb your professional instincts as a media practitioner.

We may be tempted to say the State’s action against the media after the July uprising was retrograde, dictatorial and reminiscent of some military regime of the twentieth century. But such handy labels actually shut down an important debate on how easy the State in Kashmir, with all the aura and hubris of its democratic credentials, finds it to cock a snook at the media.

Immediately after the uprising, we had all mobile connectivity shut down across Kashmir. It was then the only means to know each other’s welfare and reach out for help. At that time, the ‘civilian’ government had literally handed over, rather ceded, all authority to the police and paramilitary forces who enforced crippling curfews, targeting even ambulances ferrying medical emergencies — a war crime in itself. Along with mobiles went all internet connectivity. In the State’s great logic, internet and mobile connectivity would have provided the people a vehicle to mobilise the masses for pro-freedom street demonstrations. One, what mobilisation do you require when the public is in a permanent state of mobilisation, all ready to flood the streets at any point of time. That was proven by the fact that pro-freedom marches took place all across Kashmir despite the internet and mobile shutdown. Two, the fallacy that mobile and internet connectivity can worsen the situation as people will upload text and pictures of killings and injuries for mass sharing is fundamentally wrong. As we saw, it was actually the blacking out of information that was seeding rumours which in turn were making people angrier and violent. In fact, the resistance in Kashmir is already past its Twitter and Facebook moment.

If this was not enough, the State forces then went around sealing the printing presses of several newspapers and seizing all printed material. What was worse, the official spokesman for the government pretended ignorance about this act. It obviously was done to escape responsibility and avoid embarrassment by making false justifications for the sealing. But unfortunately, the aggrieved editors gave the government an easy escape route, as it relented and allowed the papers to publish. If the government faked ignorance about the sealing, the media corps should have pressed for an inquiry into what was, by the government’s own denial, an unauthorised and patently illegal act.

While harassment of media persons by State forces was rampant making reporting next to impossible, the youth gangs which had seized control of the streets made matters even worse. These predatory gangs targeted media persons as they saw them the first available soft targets who, in their misperception, were siding with the government.

Then came the State’s final act. English-language daily, Kashmir Reader, was banned by a written order. In the State’s immense wisdom and analysis, the ban was slapped because the paper “contains material and content which tends to incite acts of violence and disturb public peace and tranquillity.”

If one carries an honest examination of what Kashmir Reader was reporting then, you hardly find anything which other papers from the Valley weren’t at that time. The Valley’s largest circulated daily Greater Kashmir was giving far better and wider coverage of the killings, maimings and other scorched-earth tactics of the forces. Opinion pieces of that gory situation in Greater Kashmir were also far more liberal in their outcry against the actions of the State and its forces against civilians in a concerted violent campaign of retribution to crush the uprising. At least, two other small-time newspapers were reportedly also about to be axed soon after the Reader ban. Somehow, they survived. Apart from banning Kashmir Reader, the government was allegedly contemplating bringing a sedition case against its editor and even arresting him.

The circulation of Kashmir Reader even at its peak in ‘normal’ times doesn’t cross 1200. At the time of its banning, it would print around 600 copies as the distribution network of all papers was crippled by the situation. The vital point here is that reporting in a very small newspaper that no more than 2000 people read (assuming each copy is read by three people) becomes a threat for the State’s version of “public peace and tranquillity.” It tells us something about the deep insecurities of the State and a queer situation where it suddenly finds legitimacy for itself and its actions missing. It also shows how quickly the State can expose the falsity of its claim to democratic credentials. In the self-defeating rush to right its wrongs and retrieve its lost writ, the curious case of how a ‘democratic’ State reduces itself to a caricature of an autarch shouldn’t be missed either.

The other crucial point is, whether a small or big newspaper is banned, the aim is invariably the same — messaging all the messengers — to create an atmosphere of fear so that the media, as a whole, begins to self-censor. And that is already happening. Owners are drawing new red lines around themselves to ensure their enterprises are not choked by denying them advertisements or shut down on flimsy charges. Reporters and writers avoid issues that might give a handle to the State to beat them up. A culture of an unspoken ban on ‘controversial’ issues is already in place post-Reader ban. In fact, ‘controversial’ has got a new meaning — something that may be true, but can potentially upset the State or any of its many powerful actors who, in the Kashmir context, enjoy absolute authority as well as impunity to justify their means under the cover of ‘security concerns’.

An important aspect of this debate is this: who actually vitiates public ‘peace’, even if one were to accept State definitions of peace? Is it the actual act of bloodletting by State forces or its subsequent reporting by the media? And, how is the media to be blamed if gory State actions inflame public passions? The answers to such fundamental questions are too obvious to merit any discussion. Suffice is to say that the State always looks for a fall guy to absolve itself of its violent acts. In the process, it demonises the media as troublemaker and agent provocateur to drum up sympathy for itself by portraying itself as a victim rather than the aggressor. It also aids the State to shift focus from its wrong-doings to issues where it can play ball all by its rules.

But even in times of ‘peace’ in Kashmir, it is the State’s policies, actions and decisions that imperil public ‘tranquillity’ setting off a spiral of violence. Cases in point: Amaranth land transfer, industrial policy, Sainik colonies, exclusive settlements for Pandits, etc.

The situation in Kashmir is what it is: a powder-keg waiting for a spark. So did the government learn how its actions actually blow the hair trigger and consume precious lives? No. The recent issue of domicile certificates to West Pakistan refugees shows how insensitive the government is towards the situation. Importantly, it demolishes the false construct that the State is for peace and establishes this: it is the State’s actions, and not the media or another entity, which constitute a potential threat to ‘peace’ in Kashmir.

If this isn’t enough to endanger ‘peace’ in Kashmir, other provocations add to the fire. The AFSPA is a permanent declaration of war on all Kashmiris at all times. Isn’t that a perennial threat to ‘peace’? So is the abuse of PSA which perpetually hangs like a Damocles’ sword over every Kashmiri. The tens of thousands of cases of killings, enforced disappearances, torture, rapes, blindings and other human rights violations are constant reminders to Kashmiris of the wrongs inflicted on them over the past 27 years. Isn’t the condoning of these cases a trigger for a public upheaval? Since very few have been punished for these crimes, there has virtually been no closure to these painful wounds that have scarred the collective conscience of Kashmiris. This lack of closure constitutes a permanent threat to ‘peace’ as deeply-embedded sore memories become spark plugs for a violent revengeful blowback. You can’t have peace when you are waging a war of suppression. An enforced silence can’t be misconstrued for genuine tranquillity.

Now that the ban on Kashmir Reader has been lifted, it clearly establishes one thing: the ban was unjustified, perhaps a hasty decision by a government that freaked out in the face of a pan-Kashmir uprising.

There have been rumours that some elements in Kashmir’s media fraternity prodded the government to crack the whip on Reader. It is for Kashmir’s media professionals to watch out for such back-stabbing elements and isolate them. There are also rumours that the owner of Kashmir Reader may have been asked to lay off the paper’s editor in return for lifting of the ban. Nobody would confirm that, even off the record. In the coming months, media watchers will keep an eye on changes in the paper’s news content and editorial line. For now, the pressure will be on the paper. One, to prove the rumour mills wrong about the supposed lay-off. Two, that it doesn’t crack under pressure and make compromises in its reporting of events as honestly and in-depth as possible, however unpleasant it may be for the State. That just about applies to all publications from Kashmir which for the most part operate under tremendous pressures and risks. Here the largest circulated and inarguably the most influential news daily from Kashmir — Greater Kashmir — should take the lead in encouraging some robust and hard-boiled journalism. After taking over the Kashmir Editors’ Guild, the paper’s chief editor-owner has already set off huge expectations by positioning himself in the anchor role of upholding media freedom and rights of journalists in Kashmir. One only hopes the Guild doesn’t soft-pedal on critical issues out of pressure or pulls of self-aggrandisement.

The point is if journalists concede ground to the State under pressure or in enticement, the profession of journalism will suffer further damage. Journalism in Kashmir is already a much-compromised profession because of the State’s permanent state-of-war mindset towards anyone who differs from the State’s security-heavy, self-serving you-are-with-us-or- against-us narrative.

Add to this another unseemly dimension. Of late, the ruling class has ‘befriended’ a good number of media practitioners and created a clique of journalists using it to provide cover in dif cult situations and do its bidding in the media in the long run. The cardinal tenet of maintaining a professional distance from individuals in power, or from the government as a whole, is somewhere compromised here leading to a trade-off to what and how the media should report. In the end, while individuals on either side bene t from such unholy alliances, journalism as a profession, its practices and ethics suffer irreparably.

Since some media persons and organisations have also ‘offered’ themselves as drumbeaters of the State actors, such liaisons have created a negative impression about the entire media fraternity in Kashmir. This makes the government see all media persons as easily-available pawns. Some years ago, Srinagar-based ex-commander 15 Corps Gen Atta Hasnain, published a detailed piece naming and shaming several journalists whom he manoeuvred to play the State’s cheerleaders. When this went around, it created an embarrassing situation for these journalists. The pressure was such that the General had to redact their names from his piece.

An important recent development has been the government’s decision to set up a press club in Srinagar for journalists in Kashmir. The decision was reportedly taken after lobbying by the movers and shakers of the Kashmir Editors’ Guild. There are voices within the journalistic fraternity which say this will further bring the media in Kashmir under government influence leading to undeclared compromises and erosion of whatever is left of media independence. Here it is curious to note the decision to set up the press club was announced by the same minister who had a few months ago taunted and ridiculed some senior journalists/newspaper owners for running their operations, which obviously are commercial, from prime state-owned properties at throwaway rents. The KEG could have acted a little wiser. A press club is indeed needed, but not at the cost of mortgaging the entire press to the State. A press club can always come up with donations and private sponsorships and go on to generate its own revenue to pay back. No minister would then ever dare to make these condescending catcalls.

Kashmir offers its peculiar punishing problems to the media. The almost total polarisation that exists between the State and the ‘controlled, occupied’ people is a difficult situation to manoeuvre for any journalist. The State here views everything through the security prism. Its responses to situations developing on the ground out of this outlook are almost always military-style based on retributive violence. Worse, the State wants the media to see moral merit in its deployment of violence against civilians. In such a climate, the State wants the media to play along, act as its natural handmaiden and a force-multiplier in its push to control hearts and minds, turf and territory. The media is driven by a different dynamic. That’s where the problem begins. But unfortunately, it is the media that eventually has to make compromises to ensure its bare survival rather than its freedom. We just saw that happening in the case of Kashmir Reader, where the paper as well as the entire media corps in Kashmir were left with no option but to supplicate for lifting the ban. The State is too, too powerful in Kashmir that you can afford to speak truth to it.

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    By: KN Web Desk

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