Srinagar: “In university, my professor would often say, ‘If tomorrow I become a journalist, the moment I follow media ethics I will be shown the door’,” said a Srinagar-based journalist who works with an English weekly. He was talking about the Jammu and Kashmir government’s the Media Policy 2020.
As The Wire has reported, the policy authorises government officers to decide on what is “fake news” and take action against journalists and media organisations. It also emphasises on verifying the antecedents of newspaper publishers, editors and key staff members before empanelling newspapers and online portals for advertisements.
On June 2, 2020, when the UT administration unveiled the new policy to examine the content of print, electronic and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national content”, local journalists largely remained silent. About a month later, on July 6, a group of journalists assembled inside the Press Colony in Lal Chowk and staged a protest against the policy, which is valid for the next five years.
The protesting journalists, under the banner of the J&K Media Guild, were carrying banners that read: “Don’t gag media, we are an equally important pillar of democracy”, and “Down with media policy 2020”.
The protesters were demanding an immediate rollback of the policy and said they don’t want to be a mouthpiece of the government.
More ways for the government to go after journalists
Fearing retribution from the government, a senior editor working with an English daily told The Wire that it is astonishing that an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) or Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) officer will now decide the job of a journalist. “What could be more ironic than this – that a bureaucrat or a police officer will now decide what is news and what is not?”
He added that the aim of the policy, a 53-page document, is to kill the local media and build only the government narrative. “This policy will simply convert journalism into public relations, which is not just sad but dangerous for democracy.”
Calling the future of journalism in J&K bleak, Nazim Nazir, who is associate editor of the largest circulated Urdu newspaper Tameel-I-Irshad said gone are the days when newspapers were carrying stories fearlessly. “Earlier editors would carry any factual story by a reporter in the newspaper, but now the media policy created two gatekeepers – a newspaper sub-editor and a government official, leading to government-regulated press. With this policy in mind, an editor will never risk carrying a story which will put a reporter in trouble.”
The policy was established at a time when the J&K police had filed FIRs against two journalists and summoned several others for their reporting and social media posts. Freelance photojournalist Masrat Zahra and senior journalist and author Gowhar Geelani were booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in April.
Two months after she was booked under the UAPA, Zahra won the 2020 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in photojournalism award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.
The policy also came in the backdrop of three J&K-based photojournalists, working with news agency Associated Press, winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Kashmir’s lockdown after the reading down of Article 370 last year.
Just a month after this policy was rolled out, on July 9, Fahad Shah, chief editor of local news magazine The Kashmir Walla, was summoned and questioned for reporting about alleged police misconduct during a gun battle in Srinagar.
“The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad received a formal summon from Safa Kadal police station saying that ‘your presence is necessary for the purpose of enquiry into the offence committed under section 147, 307, 109, 501, 505 IPC’,” the Kashmir Walla website said in a statement.
This is the second time that Shah has been summoned by the police for stories covered in his magazine.
Making the crackdown more official
Many journalists in J&K believe that the government, before rolling out the new media policy, was anyway muzzling the press one way or the other.
“Government has first created the climate of fear among journalists before rolling out the media policy in J&K,” Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, the editor of Kashmir Times, told The Wire.
“You need to understand that in the past one year, journalists in Kashmir have been repeatedly summoned, intimidated and detained. The government has done its homework before framing this policy. The government does not want the facts to come out, and that is why this new policy has been established to muzzle the press in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Jamwal.
Following the Central government’s decision to read down Article 370 on August 5 last year, Jamwal filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding restoration of communication modes and taking necessary steps for ensuring free and safe movement of journalists and media personnel.
It was because of her petition that the court on January 10 directed the Jammu and Kashmir administration to review the curbs on communication every week.
As per local newspapers editors, they were not consulted by the government before the new media policy was announced. “We were not even informed that this policy was being formulated. There was no communication from the government with editors or journalists,” said a member of the Kashmir Editors Guild.
Another senior journalist, Khursheed Wani who has covered the Kargil war in 1999, said the media policy will replace journalism with stenography. Wani added that the role of the media is to expose loopholes in government policies, not to toe the line. “Right from 1998 when I began my career with a local news agency, journalists in Kashmir have been intimidated, harassed and detained regularly. In 2008, 2010 and 2016 during political unrest, authorities created hurdles for journalists but still we managed to work professionally,” recalled Wani who worked with The Pioneer as J&K bureau chief for 19 years.
Veteran journalist Yusuf Jameel, who received the 2019-20 PEN Gauri Lankesh Award, however, said that the new media policy cannot kill journalism in J&K but it does have the potential to damage it. Jameel, who began his journalism career in 1978 with Khaleeji Times, said that journalists form a united forum to counter this policy.
Media researchers also worried
Raashid Maqbool, a media researcher who is working at the University of Kashmir, said the current situation is challenging for journalists. “If we look at the media history of Kashmir, local newspapers have been pressurised time and again by the government on the pretext of government advertisements. However, this time the policy is being released to create further press censorship,” said Maqbool.
Riyaz Malik, opinion editor at Greater Kashmir‘s sister publication Kashmir Uzma, told The Wire that the media policy “looks harsh” because of the certain “undemocratic and unethical” provisions.
Malik quickly added that journalists here need to understand that the government already has sweeping powers under existing press laws. “These provisions in the new media policy 2020 beyond doubt have certain controversial provisions, for instance police verification of journalists or the information department doing a robust background check for every journalist before finalising their accreditation. But these things are again not new to journalists of Kashmir. They have been undergoing this quite frequently,” said Malik.
However, Malik said the policy is not entirely negative and some silver lining can be found. For instance, he said, anyone who holds a camera today can call themselves a ‘journalist’, leading to a rise in fake reporting and plagiarism. This policy, according to him, could introduce some important checks and balances to safeguard the professional standards of journalism.
Monisa Qadiri, senior assistant professor at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Islamic University of Science and Technology, Awantipora, said the policy will have drastic implications for aspiring journalists. “Over the last few years, the news media industry has been struggling and does not look so promising for future journalists. Most of them prefer more stable options. Now with this media policy, many youngsters who intern or get trained at various media organisations here are quite apprehensive about their job prospects.”
Qadiri added that the policy should have been formulated using a consultative approach, to lessen the already existing perceptions regarding restrictions on freedom of expression.
When asked to comment on the new media policy, Dr Afsa Bhat who teaches media ethics at the Department of Educational Multimedia Research Centre, Kashmir University said, “No doubt the present J&K media scenario looks grim but we should continuously inculcate journalism values and ethics among aspiring journalists. Even if media ethics are not enforced on the field, the spirit of teaching media ethics should continue.”
When The Wire contacted Kashmir Press Club vice-president Moazum Mohammad, he said the matter has been brought before the Press Council of India and the council is seeking a reply from the J&K government. “After August 5, the government first resorted to an information blackout, due to which the press became virtually defunct and journalists could not report properly. Now this new media policy has been announced, which clearly violates the freedom of speech and expression and other constitutional guarantees including Article 19(1) (a). The intent behind this policy is clear – the government wants to demolish the press in J&K.”
The Wire tried to contact the Jammu and Kashmir information director, Dr Sehrish Asgar, for her comments. She did not respond to WhatsApp message or phone calls.