An Unacceptable Attack on Media Freedom

Why the clampdown on newspapers in Kashmir is an unacceptable attack on media freedom.

By clamping down on newspapers, that too in a hamfisted manner, the PDP-BJP coalition government did what all regimes do when they run out of solutions to a crisis – come down heavily on the messenger. A midnight swoop on newspaper offices and the confiscation of all printed copies as well as plates to prevent more being printed is the modus operandi of authoritarian governments, not democratic ones.

Internet access had already been blocked, as was mobile telephony and clearly the clampdown on newspapers was to cut off all flow of information in the state.

Presumably, the government hoped that this gag would prevent Kashmiris from knowing what was happening in their state and the security forces could go about their task of restoring peace without any ambient noise and pesky questioning by the media, while the citizens could be assured that all was well.

If so, it was a big mistake. In the absence of authentic news, which newspapers provide, unsubstantiated rumours take over – the wilder they are, the more they are believed. What is more, the technologically savvy will find ways to communicate, thus rendering any such ban ineffective. A savvier government would have used the press to get its own point of view across, not deploy jackboots and the midnight knock to shut it down.

Ever since the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani, Mehbooba Mufti’s government has shown itself incapable of managing the rising violence in Kashmir. The usual solution – throw the full armed might of the state at the problem – has not worked this time, as waves of violent youth have come out on the streets. Over 40 people have died and more than 2000 have been injured. Harrowing stories of youngsters being blinded by the deadly pellets being fired by security forces have appeared in the media.

In this age of hyper-information, people do not only rely on just the traditional, mainstream media; they look for alternative sources, ranging from personal blogs to posts on social media, which are unfiltered and unauthenticated. Often, readers believe everything they read, especially if it confirms their pre-set opinions and biases. In this kind of propaganda war, the government is sure to lose.

This is where newspapers, which are run professionally, score: the internal systems and processes ensure that only the news that has been checked and vetted appears. Preventing papers from being printed and distributed is therefore counter-productive. And how long does the government propose to keep this going? When the newspapers finally begin printing again, will they have to submit their copy to a censor so that only the official point of view prevails?

The country’s media must protest in one voice against this treatment of their colleagues in Kashmir. Qualifying it with ifs and buts – that the situation in Kashmir is ‘abnormal’ and thus calls for such extreme measures – will set a dangerous precedent. India has a robustly free press but this can change if media professionals are not alert in safeguarding their freedom.

With this one act, the PDP-BJP government has lost any residual sympathy that may have existed among those who felt that it was facing a difficult challenge in containing the ongoing upsurge in the state. The administration must immediately ensure that there is no hindrance to newspapers being printed and distributed, and that a misguided action such as this is not repeated.