On 2 October, the Jammu and Kashmir government banned the publication of the Srinagar-based English daily, Kashmir Reader, to prevent “disturbance of public tranquillity”. Now, The Editors Guild of India, an informal journalist body comprising of over 200 members from the media, has asked the state’s chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, to look into the newspaper’s complaint and reconsider the ban.
On 6 October, the news channel NDTV ran a graphic during its primetime. Titled, "India above politics", it said that "national security cannot be compromised by politics" and that "the current political debate threatens to do so." It further said, "NDTV will not air any remarks that risk security for political advantage". The graphic was aired following an internal mail by NDTV’s editorial director, Sonia Singh, explaining the channel’s new editorial policy.
The same morning, NDTV had run excerpts of an interview with the former Union Home Minister and senior Congress leader, P Chidambaram, conducted by the channel’s anchor, Barkha Dutt. In the excerpt, Chidambaram is seen criticising statements made by Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, in the aftermath of the 29 September surgical strikes. But instead of airing the full interview like it had promised, NDTV ran the graphic statement and later even the excerpt was pulled off its website.
In a subsequent statement, NDTV said that it ran interviews “based on their relevance and newsworthiness in a continuum of developments”. It further said that “on matters of wild and unsubstantiated allegations, of which there is no shortage today in the country's politics, we will not report them without the accuser offering proof that has been verified by us and found to be news-worthy.”
The channel did not clarify even after being asked by Chidambaram himself which part of his interview “contained remarks that risked security for political advantage.” It also did not specify what “wild and unsubstantiated allegations” Chidambaram had made, if any, or if the channel thought that an interview with a former Home Minister on a hot topic was not relevant or newsworthy.
Let’s for a minute try and go with NDTV’s decision. Let us say the channel thought it had genuine reasons (which have not been specified) for deciding to not air Chidambaram’s interview. Based on this judgment, the channel took a call and decided to cull the interview.
But how are these things supposed to work? A news channel and its editors can take a call on not airing a particular interview because it supposedly compromises national security, but an elected government cannot take a decision to ban a newspaper on the same principle?
Look at some of the reports Kashmir Reader chose to publish before its ban. On 12 August, it published a threat issued by pro-Pakistan groups, warning that those who defy them will be “treated as traitors and will be dealt [with] accordingly”. In another item, it openly carried a diktat by the United Jihad Council chief, Syed Salahuddin, asking pro-India politicians to resign and join them or else “the nation won’t spare them later”.
In yet another instance the newspaper carried a report of “rebel organisation Lashkar-e-Toyyaba [sic]” seeking permission from the separatist leadership to “eliminate Indian agents” in the state “who don’t mend their ways despite warned time and again”. The newspaper also chose to carry the full “protest calendar” issued by the separatist leadership allowing no relaxation to the Kashmiris. In a blog post, a few years ago, one of the newspaper’s editors termed the exiled minority Hindus as “intestinal parasites.”
The call for lifting ban on the newspaper by champions of Press freedom prompted researcher and blogger, Vinayak Razdan, to write a post, citing the example of the 1966 agitation (to press for the ban on cow slaughter), in which hundreds of thousands of sadhus descended upon Delhi, attacking several government buildings, including the parliament. In the ensuing violence, several sadhus lost their lives while many were arrested.
Imagine if [the] Jan Sangh in response to the event had issued a diktat asking all Hindu state employees to choose between secular India or Hindu India… appealed them to join their movement…. imagine if all Hindu employees who chose Secular India were told to be ready for the "natural consequences
"... Imagine if this diktat was published in [the] Hindustan Times or [the] Times of India as a paid advertisement. The ad would have been inserted in stories about the pious life of dead sadhus and images of their dead gory faces. Imagine the consequences. What kind of publishing house [read: newspaper] would have carried such an ad and what kind of editors would have allowed such stories?”
On the guild’s website (which has not been updated to reflect its current office bearers), “upholding the freedom of the Press and striving for improvement of professional standards, safeguarding the editorial independence and taking appropriate steps to implement and further these aims” are listed as its main objectives. But while the guild has chosen to speak for a newspaper, we haven’t heard anything about the curious case of NDTV, especially when the guild’s website lists Barkha Dutt herself as one of the executive committee members (at least in 2014-15). What are we supposed to make of this silence? What is the criteria for intervention, or non-intervention, for that matter?
While these developments are unfolding, there is hope from Pakistan. The editor of the English daily Dawn, whose reporter has been barred from leaving the country (after he wrote a controversial story), has issued a strong statement, standing by both the story and by the “sacred oath to its (Dawn’s) readers to pursue its reporting fairly, independently and, above all, accurately.”
Sometime in 2004, a senior Bush administrator told a New York Times Magazine reporter, “We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you [journalists], will be left to just study what we do.” The problem with Indian journalism is that many of us falsely think of ourselves as history’s actors but might be ultimately left to study history made by editors of a neighbouring country.