By: Mohamad Yousuf Tarigami
By denying the media freedom, the government is building its own narrative and providing space for fake news
A major casualty of the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, has been press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). This has led to the problem of disinformation and is causing great anxiety in the region. The feeling of alienation in the Kashmir Valley is inimical to the national interest besides the interests of Kashmiris.
Historically, the press in J&K used to highlight democratic, anti-feudal and secular struggles. It supported the efforts to accede with India as the Maharaja wavered and the political leadership under Sheikh Abdullah threw its weight behind democratic and secular India. The Urdu daily, Ranbir, was banned by the monarchy in June 1947 for demanding accession to India and the release of Sheikh Abdullah. The ban was eventually lifted. The editor of an Urdu weekly, Pukar, was also threatened in 1942 by the monarchy as the paper supported the Quit India movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.
Nowadays, it is painful to see the newspapers of Kashmir in the morning. There is nothing about the current political situation in J&K; there are only government press releases. There is hardly any room for political parties and their statements. Newspapers mostly carry advertisements or advertisement-cum-statements of government officials and senior government functionaries. Government advertisements are used as an instrument to force editors to control the media narrative. And if a newspaper does not conform, it has to face action: advertisements are abruptly cancelled or investigating agencies carry out raids. Our journalist friends tell us that it is routine for the police to call them and seek information about them and their relatives. These actions only send a message to the larger journalistic community that freedom of the press, which is implied in the freedom of speech in the Constitution, is under threat.
More and more journalists are being harassed since the administration introduced the revised Media Policy in 2020, which effectively gags the media. The Press Council of India has constituted a three-member fact-finding committee to inquire into the allegations of intimidation and harassment of journalists. The Council is scheduled to visit J&K. The aim of the Media Policy, which has been formulated without any consultation with the media groups, seems to be to marginalise the local media and build the government narrative. The press in J&K is now virtually a government-regulated one.
Strategy to prevent disinformation
The denial of press freedom in J&K should be seen from a larger perspective. First, in this age of social media, where information and narratives are shared through encrypted platforms, it is important to protect the general public from disinformation and fake news. While state media outlets have a role to play in this, the public at large relies on sources of information that are seen as being more credible and independent. In this connection, allowing professional reporters to perform their tasks without being under duress or facing threats is at the heart of any strategy to prevent disinformation. After all, journalists are accountable to their newspaper editors who, in turn, have to abide by the laws of the land. Otherwise, in an environment where government press releases fill the newspaper space, the public will invariably reach out to easily available social media platforms which are notorious for feeding people with sensational, false information. In Kashmir, the information vacuum is a breeding ground for fake news. This has security implications as well.
Second, J&K is a battleground of narratives at present. A credible narrative rooted in truth and honesty will win this battle. This can be met by allowing professional reporters to gather information, and editors to share their editorials in a freer environment. The lack of a democratic government has closed all avenues of redress. The government is not amenable to public sentiment as it has nothing to lose by alienating the people and the press. When journalists say it has become impossible for them to do normal reportage, it must be seriously taken by the courts. The judiciary must intervene to restore the dignity of the fourth estate and take serious cognisance of the cases filed against journalists and newspapers. If courts look the other way today, it will not augur well for democracy.
More broadly, the refusal to integrate J&K with the Indian democratic tradition that provides for press freedom continues to be the main impediment for J&K’s emotional relationship with the country. As the peace activist Balraj Puri once said, “These premises are not only an insult to the people of Kashmir but to all democratic sensibility.”
Mohamad Yousuf Tarigami is former member of the J&K Legislative Assembly