New Delhi: A recently released fact-finding report on the state of media in the Valley after restrictions were imposed in J&K following the reading down of Article 370 claims to reveal “a grim and despairing picture of the media in Kashmir, fighting for survival against the most incredible of odds”.
According to the report, called “News Behind the Barbed Wire – Kashmir’s Information Blockade”, a two-member team from the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) and the Free Speech Collective (FSC) spent five days in the Valley (August 30-September 3). Journalists Laxmi Murthy and Geeta Seshu from the above mentioned two volunteer-driven organisations were part of the team.
The report says the team spoke to more than 70 journalists, correspondents and editors of newspapers and news sites in Srinagar and South Kashmir, as well as members of the local administration and civilians.
The team noticed surveillance, informal ‘investigations’ and even arrests of journalists whose reporting was not favourable to the government or security forces. They say despite the absence of an official curfew or notification for the shutdown, printing facilities are controlled, and mobility in select areas such as hospitals is restricted.
“In the absence of reportage from the ground, the government’s influence of the narrative of normalcy is near total,” the report adds. It says there is “deafening silence” and “invisibilisation” of voices from Kashmir in the national media on the “alienation, anger and disillusionment at the perceived breach of trust”. The report calls the control of communication by the government undemocratic and harmful, adding that it privileges voices of authority over those “speaking truth to power”.
The team alleges that journalists have been questioned for reporting “sensitive stories” and have even been pressured to reveal their sources. Subtle warnings have been sent to editors of leading newspapers, that reporting sensitive stories could result in questioning by investigating authorities, according to the report.
The report highlights difficulties faced by journalists in gathering and verifying information about incidents, communicating with their sources and inability to respond to play-backs from editors regarding fact checks. It says this could compromise the credibility of news stories and even endanger local journalists.
Referring to alleged verbal orders to senior journalists Fayaz Bukhari, Aijaz Hussain and Nazir Masoodi to vacate government-allotted accommodation, the report calls it an attempt to harass journalists by deploying pressure tactics.
The report also claims that landlines are working only in certain areas but not in the press enclave, which houses most newspaper offices. “While government figures claim that 26,000 landlines (with 95 working exchanges) across J&K have been restored, the majority in Jammu and Ladakh. In both areas, the ban on the Internet has been lifted but communication remains erratic,” it says.
Talking about the Media Facilitation Centre set up in a private hotel by the state government for journalists in Srinagar, the report says there are only five computers, a BSNL internet connection and one phone line controlled and managed by government officers. This causes inconvenience as journalists often have to queue up to file stories, sometimes waiting an entire day just to send one file.
Calling the government’s approach “top down”, it says press briefings by senior members of the administration are held irregularly for 10-15 minutes where no questions are fielded.
Some topics off-limit
Hinting at an “unofficial directive” on what is permissible content, it says high ranking police officers have told journalists that news about protests, stone-pelting and restrictions are off-limits. Murthy and Seshu also heard that a team of BJP members bring seven-eight stories every day, demanding them to be published.
The report cited examples of editorials in major newspapers to demonstrate how the absence of editorial voices reflects the state of media in the state. “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”.”
Mentioning that international media has not been allowed direct access to the Kashmir valley, it says they have been able to provide a more holistic picture of the situation through senior local journalists. However, the report adds that these local journalists are being targeted. “A “List” with the names of seven journalists has reportedly been compiled. These are: 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,” it says.
Local journalists told the fact-finding team that ‘embedded’ journalists from the national media are creating a narrative that’s convenient to the government. “I would have written the story differently. It was clear they did not want my report. So now, I don’t file anything,” a journalist working with a prominent newspaper told the team.
The report also details difficulties faced by women journalists. In addition to the restrictions on communication and mobility, pressures from the family to remain safe make their work “immensely difficult”.
In conclusion, the report lists several measures the government must take to demonstrate a commitment to freedom of expression. These include immediate lifting of internet shutdown and ensuring high-speed internet connectivity, restoration of landlines and mobile networks with priority given to journalists and media houses. The report also seeks restrictions on the movement of journalists being lifted, desisting from monitoring and surveillance and ceasing “intimidation tactics”.
It also demands creating a level playing field for local, national and international media to ensure equal access to official sources and information, setting up of a transparent and accountable mechanism for disbursal of government advertising and ensuring an enabling environment for the safety and dignity of working journalists.