New Delhi: A rebellion is brewing within the ranks of the Press Council of India over the way chairman Justice C.K. Prasad has allegedly stymied all efforts by a fact-finding team to visit Jammu and Kashmir.
Soon after the Union government ended the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and decided to bifurcate the state, the PCI on August 22 held a meeting and decided to send a fact-finding team to understand the impact of the communication lockdown on the press.
However, even after three months, the team has still not been able to visit the state.
“It is shameful that the team has still not been allowed to go,” Jaishankar Gupta, a PCI member and senior journalist told The Wire.
“A four-member team to be headed by P.K. Dash was constituted to probe the gag on the press as a result of the government’s decisions. First, it was decided that the team would leave in September but it was not allowed to go. Then the team thought it could visit the state in the first week of October. Even that did not happen,” he said.
“It’s November now. The tourism ban has been lifted. The government has allowed parliamentarians from Europe to visit the state but the PCI fact-finding team has still not gone,” he added.
Another council member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that ever since the fact-finding team was constituted, chairman Prasad has been reluctant to send it to the Valley.
“He discouraged the team from visiting the state. He said there is no point going, and that the team would not be welcomed there. Then he said the team can go only if the state administration extends its hospitality to PCI. The state administration, then under Satyapal Malik governorship, refused us entry,” he said.
Whenever the PCI’s fact-finding teams visit a spot to conduct their enquiries, state governments usually take care of logistical arrangements like vehicles, security and accommodation. The council has regularly sent teams to enquire into press freedom in insurgency-affected areas of the country. In recent times, the PCI has sent its fact-finding teams to Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli, where a journalist was badly beaten up by the police, and to Sonbhadra, where a scribe was arrested.
When the team decided that it could go without the J&K administration’s support, the chairman did not allow it to proceed, the member said. Instead, he allegedly kept pushing the date. At least three visits planned by the team from August onwards have been cancelled.
The team still felt that it could go in the first week of October, which was after two months of communications lockdown in the state, but the convenor of the team, Dash, backed out at the last moment.
“The convenor declined to lead the team. He said he wasn’t keeping well and is recovering from a personal tragedy. He said that the other three members could go if they wanted. But even that did not happen,” said the member, who did not want to be named.
He said that when the fact-finding team was constituted, the chairman had nominated Das as its convenor. “Generally, the convenor of the team is unanimously chosen by the members but at that time no one objected to the chairman’s decision. We thought at least a team has been formed.”
He added that the convenor withdrew just when the team had decided to insist on visiting Jammu and Kashmir. “Although he refused to be part of the fact-finding team, he regularly attended council meetings. That was strange as it seemed the chairman and convenor got together to prevent the team from going,” the member said, adding that it is perhaps too late now for the team to go.
“The state has been bifurcated into two Union Territories. Winter has already arrived. The capital has shifted from Srinagar to Jammu. There is no point going to Jammu alone,” he said.
Gupta said that by not allowing the team to go, the PCI had marred its reputation as an independent institution. “We are not the government’s tool. The PCI has a statutory role as a media watchdog. Its primary role is to preserve the freedom of the press. Yet, it’s a shame that the team was not allowed to go,” said Gupta.
The PCI was recently in the centre of a political storm when chairman Prasad unilaterally sought permission from the Supreme Court to intervene in a petition filed by Kashmir Times executive editor Anuradha Bhasin.
Bhasin had demanded that communications restrictions be ended in J&K but the PCI’s affidavit, quite opposite to its mandate, said the ban on communication and free movement, was “in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation”.
However, after most media associations and a few council members condemned this move by the PCI, it was forced to backtrack. It later decided to tell the Supreme Court that it did not approve of the restrictions on Kashmir’s media, and would rather submit a detailed reply after its fact-finding team submits a report.
With the fact-finding team still struggling to visit the state, it seems unlikely that the PCI would submit a report anytime soon.