“Brain freeze”, “mind-numbing”, “deadwood”, “a feeling of forcibly being confined in a cold storage” – during a recent visit to the Kashmir Valley, journalists search for words to describe to me the experience of having been stripped of their professional identity and dignity by government diktat.
The morning of August 5, when all forms of communication were abruptly suspended in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, remains etched in their minds. As one young journalist puts it, “We were thoroughly disoriented. It struck us that we, who should have been reporting on this moment that was changing Kashmir forever, were reduced to mute spectators. The disorientation continues to this day.”
Six months have passed since the dilution of Article 370 amidst occasional protests of mediapersons, but nothing has changed for them in substantive terms. The Supreme Court’s verdict of January 10, which recognises that expressing one’s views or conducting one’s business through the internet are protected under the Constitution, and which stated that “all forms of communication, subject to overriding consideration of national security, shall be normalized”, has been met by a combination of doublespeak and executive sleight of hand on the part of the Modi government. On the one hand, the government claims that internet has been largely restored; on the other, you have communication minister Ravi Shankar Prasad stating in Parliament that the right to the internet is not fundamental and that the decision to stop internet services is taken by “local authorities” based on law and order concerns.
So “resumption of the internet” here boils down to providing 2G services, which one newspaper editor in the region succinctly summed up as just “a piece of trash”. Journalists here have innumerable complaints about having to wait “forever for a page to open up”. Accessible websites in the Valley now number some 300 odd “whitelisted sites” (according to one report, only 58 of these are functional), when the unrestricted worldwide web actually comprises over 1.5 billion sites. Certain sectors like tourism, hotels, software companies have been provided with net access, but Internet Service Providers have to ensure that they sign an official undertaking agreeing to comply with government strictures.
The undertaking form apart from asking for names and contact details, clearly states that “from the allowed IP, there will be no Social Networking, Proxies, VPNs and Wi-Fi; that no encrypted file containing any sort of video/photo will be uploaded; that we also have MAC binding in place to restrict internet access to registered devices through single PC; that all the USB ports will be disabled on the network.” It also specifies that the undertaker “will be responsible for any kind of breach and misuse of the Internet” and “that the company will provide complete access to all its content and infrastructure as and when required by security agencies.”
So wide-ranging are these clauses that no journalist or media organisation can sign such a document without seriously compromising the fundamentals of journalism.
The ‘media facilitation centre’
To understand the chilling effect of the current media lockdown, one only has to visit the modest room that goes by the nomenclature of “Government Media Facilitation Centre”, near the Polo Grounds in Srinagar. One journalist to whom I spoke, even as he worked on his phone, puts it like this, “Earlier, there was censorship, but it was largely self-censorship. After August 5, you have open, in-your-face surveillance.” He adds, “You can imagine what journalists are going through – the wait, the desperation to file a report on a computer that is available to you only for a brief span of time, the sure knowledge that your identity and the material you are researching or reporting would be under the scanner, and that if you put out any material the state considers seditious, you could land up in prison.”
As an office bearer of the Kashmir Press Club comments, “Kashmir is hungry for information. It has some 150 Urdu, English and Kashmiri publications – of which there are at least are 20 robust newspapers. We understand the government doesn’t want the press, but the extent to which it would go to thwart journalists was a discovery.”
There has been a slight respite since the days immediately following the dilution, when the media centre operated in a hotel room equipped with four computers for Srinagar’s 300 plus journalists. Today, with this new facility, there are more computers, but uncertainty still reigns because, at any point, the Internet can go on the blink. Then there is pressure from others who have queued up for their chance.
For many, the worst aspect of the present system is the servility it entails. The words of a journalist at the media centre are rife with bitterness, “What we are facing is a system of apartheid against journalists, they have framed us as potential terrorists. The media centre is a double-edged sword. It is like an undeclared sub-jail. While the government claims that it is expediting journalism, the general public here believes that the government is actually locking us up in a room and telling us what to write. Where is our credibility? It is so humiliating to be dependent on this facility. It makes us dislike a profession that we were once so passionate about.”
Despite all the challenges, violence and chaos over the years J&K, with its high literacy levels, always had a vibrant media scene, with news flowing in from distant corners of the erstwhile state. Today that legacy is on the verge of being destroyed. Reports abound of stringers now forced to do manual labour to keep their families going. Since there is no connectivity to speak of in rural areas, anyone filing a story from, say, Kupwara, would have to embark a three-hour journey to Srinagar, and then wait at the media centre for a slot.
Women journalists, many of them with extremely promising careers, are a disconsolate group. They point out how the general sense of repression and fear all around has stymied their work. Reveals one young woman, “Srinagar is generally a safe city and in the earlier days, we would return home after dark without our relatives getting too worried. Now I am constantly being told to return home before sunset – but news doesn’t stop with the setting sun.”
A male colleague adds, “Travelling anywhere, even for men, is a problem. You don’t feel safe. With the aggressive troop deployment and innumerable checkpoints, you never know when you will be picked up, so one prefers not to travel. Normally, one would go in the morning for a special assignment and return late at night. Now we just don’t have the same liberty.”
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, who courageously challenged the communication blockade and media gag in the Supreme Court last August, is disappointed with the outcome of her petition. “The judgment will not have much of an impact on the status of the media here. There are aspects of the verdict which are good, but it did not usher in any real change. For me what was particularly distressing was that it did not treat the media separately. The court refused to acknowledge the chilling effect of the communication lockdown on the journalist and journalism as a whole,” she observes.
So what are the costs of this extraordinary exercise in ring-fencing the media in the name of law and order in the region? When issues of great concern to the local people now come under a blanket of state-directed control and misinformation, what are the consequences for a society? Rumours abound and fake news proliferates, even as editorials in local newspapers focus on subjects like wetland conservation and the effects of Parkinson’s disease. At the press club in Srinagar, army personnel escort local notables and aspiring politicians who go on to praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi fulsomely, even as ministers in Delhi – as if on cue – write newspaper articles claiming that there is a “yearning for change” among the people of J&K.
We need to look carefully at the Kashmir model of media control. It could, before long, become the model for controlling the Indian media.
The regular column will return next week. Write to [email protected]