A month after the Centre abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution of India on 5 August, a fact-finding report by Free Speech Collective on the ground situation in the Valley reveals that contrary to government claims, the information clampdown and unofficial curfew-like situation has resulted in the throttling of independent media.
The report titled News behind the barbed wire states that surveillance, informal 'investigations' and even arrests of journalists whose reporting was not favourable to the government or security forces was underway in Kashmir.
The report, a result of investigation by a two-member team from the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) and the Free Speech Collective (FSC), which spoke to over 70 journalists, members of the local administration and citizens in Kashmir, reveals "a grim and despairing picture of the media in Kashmir".
The team observed that even though there was no official curfew, the government managed to "throttle" the voice of independent media by controlling the facilities available for print publication, limiting government advertising (a crucial source of revenue for most newspapers) to select publications and by imposing restrictions on mobility in select areas (especially hospitals were victims of pellet injuries and injuries due to beating by the forces were being treated).
"In the absence of reportage from the ground, the government’s influence of the narrative of normalcy is near total. Its official proclamations of the creation of a 'Naya Kashmir' have become vociferous. In contrast, there is a deafening silence and invisibilisation of voices from Kashmir expressing alienation, anger and disillusionment at perceived breach of trust. The government's control of communication processes is intrinsically undemocratic and harmful, as it privileges the voices of authority and weakens those who speak truth to power," the report says.
The selective clampdown on the kind of stories a journalist can cover is more palpable than ever.
The report claims that not only have correspondents been hindered from covering protests and sensitive stories, some of them have also reported coercion to reveal their sources. Subtle warnings have been sent to editors of leading newspapers, apparently in an attempt to discourage them from carrying sensitive stories.
"Journalists operate under the ever-real threat of retribution for any adverse reports. Journalists who file reports based on verified information, are summoned by the police for questioning about their sources. As a result, most journalists we spoke to said they were forced to practice self-censorship," the report says.
Another unprecedented and rather bizarre way to mount an unofficial clampdown was through a Media Facilitation Centre set up at a private hotel on 10 August. This centre has five computers, a BSNL internet connection, and a phone line, all strictly controlled and managed by government officials with the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR). Journalists queue up for as simple a task as uploading stories, checking their emails, or sending across supporting and verifiable documents for their stories.
On top of this, absence of internet and phone lines in sensitive areas, effectively ensures that the government-monitored media centre is the only access point for journalists to relay their stories to editors and publications outside Valley. Long queues to access the internet also meant that journalists are unable to receive any communication from editors who, as usually happens, would have queries or clarifications on their stories. As a result, stories are often held back or not used at all.
The report states that the "top-down approach" of the government is reflected in the irregularly held press briefings by the local administration, lasting about 10-15 minutes, where questions are either not taken or not answered.
Photojournalists trying to keep a visual record of the unprecedented clampdown bear the most brunt of the state's interference. The report states they are regularly hauled up and hindered after they are spotted covering protests. Many reported that they were "regularly accosted and forced to delete footage of protests, especially stone pelting".
The team also heard journalists claim that a team of BJP members bring seven-eight stories every day, demanding them to be published. The clampdown on voices of angry and aggrieved Kashmiris is evident by the sheer absence of editorials and op-eds from regional newspapers at a time when the state's polity is undergoing a historic period of transition. “Editorials, op-eds and leads are now on topics such as Vitamin A foods: Uses, benefits and top 10 dietary sources; Want to ditch junk food?; Should you consume caffeine during summer? The answer will surprise you; Fruit produce; Planetary thinking; Our oceans and us."
"There is a clear anti-Pakistan stand – i.e. Don’t give coverage to Imran Khan on the front page, even on sports pages; a paper carrying a photo of Pakistani cricketer Misbah ul Haq received a visit from the police."
The report also mentions a specific case where 'unofficial verbal orders' were issued to senior journalists Fayaz Bukhari, Aijaz Hussain and Nazir Masoodi to vacate government-allotted accommodation, which could not only deprive them of basic facilities but also endanger their lives. They asked for written eviction notices, but none were issued. Such actions appear to have been inspired from the fact that the government has been unable to thwart the flow of information to foreign media publications, traditionally critical of alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. Apparently, a 'list' with the names of seven journalists has been compiled — Fayaz Bukhari (Reuters), Riyaz Masroor (BBC), Parvez Bukhari (AFP), Aijaz Hussain (AP), Nazir Masoodi (NDTV), Basharat Peer (NYT) and Mirza Waheed, writer resident in the UK — and they are being targeted, the report says.
In order to water down the narrative about protests and any resilience from disenchanted Kashmiris, the report claims that the government has gone to the lengths of making victims inaccessible to the media. "There are no clear statistics of pellet injuries. Doctors and other hospital staff have been prohibited from talking to the media. The ward that used to house pellet injured in one hospital, has now been changed, so the injured are not accessible. Families too are scared to talk to the media lest a case is slapped on their sons. Significantly, those with pellet injuries are going to private hospitals to avoid police scrutiny. In government hospitals, names and contact details are recorded, making it easier for the police to track and foist cases on the injured, naming them as stone pelters or protesters," the report says.
The report also had a word on the 'selective' reportage being thrust by a section of 'national media' and the local journalists' frustration and sense of alienation with the lack of support. "‘Embedded’ journalists, mostly from the national media are creating a narrative convenient to the government, said local journalists. Due to this there is hostility to the media in general. International media has the wherewithal to take on accusations of inauthenticity. For example the BBC video on the protest in Soura on 9 August was challenged by the Government of India, and BBC provided the uncut footage to establish its authenticity and rebut allegations of fake news," the report summarises.
Kashmiri reporters were apparently asked to step aside to make way for Delhi bureaus-based reporters to file stories. "I would have written the story differently. It was clear they did not want my report. So now, I don't file anything," one journalist working with a prominent newspaper told the two-member team.
The environment for the local journalists is so hostile that the 'unofficial restrictions' have successfully made a case of self-censorship too. "There is a high level of mistrust and suspicion, and caution is the operative mode. With not much hope of support from media houses in case of incarceration or fake cases, journalists are wary of speaking out in groups," the report says.
In conclusion, the report suggests several ways to restore media's integrity and freedom, which includes an end to 'intimidation tactics', immediate and unrestrained access to high-speed internet, restoration of landlines and mobile networks, and restrictions on the movement of journalists being lifted.
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Updated Date: Sep 06, 2019 10:49:37 IST